Last Five Years, The

Rating:

MIXED MARRIAGE

Main Cast: Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordan

Director: Richard LaGravenese

I am simply going to have to let the retail side of my empire carry on by itself for a few weeks as I have an insatiable urge to get before the cameras again.  It has occurred to me that since I created Star Is Born pictures, the production company running out of the basement of Chateau Maine, I need not wait on the studios, but rather we could band my little crew together and create a musical spectacular of our own, an indie as I believe they are called.  We’d have to keep it relatively low budget but a quick call to some of my connections at Netflix and other streaming organizations showed that there’s a public out there hungry for new Vicki Lester pictures via video on demand.

Pierce Brosnan by Sebaso

He’s a little old for me, but so dashing!

After a quick consultation with my top advisers, we decided to begin with a terribly modern operetta.  The right property was in question until I remembered Leah’s little joke from last week and I had an absolute stroke of genius.  Star is Born pictures is pleased to announce Vicki Lester in a modern dress retelling of The Desert Song, set against the backdrop of the ISIS insurgency in Iraq.  My character, Margot Bonvalet, is now a plucky physician with Medecins sans Frontieres who is spirited away by an Al Qaeda leader to his desert stronghold.  Of course we’re keeping Romberg’s music but setting it all to a synthesizer and drum machine techno beat.  Budget and safety concerns won’t let us shoot in the Middle East so we’re going on location to Palm Springs which has plenty of desert and I have a lead on Bob Hope’s old pad for the interiors.  I have a call out to some of Hollywood’s more brilliant leading men to co-star with me as the Red Shadow.  They have to have truly legitimate singing voices to do the role justice and I hope we can land either of my top choices, Pierce Brosnan or Russell Crowe.  There’s a lot of planning yet to do but I just know it will be divine although I will have to figure out how to get my chorines to tap properly in burqas.

Musical movies being much on my mind, I settled in to the home theater with a lovely bottle of Chilean Malbec and the DVD of this year’s movie version of Jason Robert Brown’s chamber musical, The Last Five Years with Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan.  Since its first inception as a stage chamber musical in Chicago in 2001, through a celebrated off Broadway production the next year with Norbert Leo Butz and Sherrie Renee Scott, the piece has become a favorite of college performers.  The roles are age appropriate for young people, it has a cast of two and does not require much in the way of set or production values.  (Mickey Rooney and I did a one night benefit version at the Bellagio shortly before he died and it was a stunning success, raising more than $20,000 for scrofula awareness). Venture onto a college campus near you with an active theater department, and you’ll find a production in a black box or a dorm lounge or a vacant practice room.

The Last Five Years is the story of the ill-fated romance and marriage of Jamie Wellerstein, a rising young novelist (Jordan) and Cathy Hiatt (Kendrick) a not terribly successful actress.  It is told entirely in song and rather than having a traditional linear structure, the songs alternate between Cathy and Jamie.  Cathy’s songs begin at the end of the relationship and work backwards in time to the blush of new romance.  Jamie’s songs begin with their first major encounter and progress to his need to move on and away from their marriage.  They duet just once, roughly half way through, at their marriage ceremony in Central Park.  In between, we see them date, Jamie’s meteoric rise to publishing fame, their moving in together, the indignities Cathy suffers doing summer stock in Ohio, and the ups and downs of modern love.

The construction of the piece with the opposing timelines is highly theatrical and, while it works in a theater with all of the artifice of stage, when transferred to the ultra-realism of film, it’s a distinct disadvantage.   Richard LaGravenese, who wrote and directed this adaptation, finds ways to set up the individual songs but doesn’t find a good visual metaphor for the competing timelines which means any audience member who happens on the film unaware of the theatrical antecedents is likely to be incredibly confused for the first four or five numbers until they figure it out.  It’s sort of a damned either way dilemma, if the songs were reordered completely chronologically to better suit the needs of film, much of the interest and tension of the piece would have been drained all over the cutting room floor.

Kendrick and Jordan are game and acquit themselves well in somewhat tricky parts.  Jamie (a stand in for Jason Robert Brown himself who based the piece on his short marriage to actress Theresa O’Neill), is a douche and does not treat his wife well but we still have to have some empathy for him.  Cathy is a neurotic mess and it’s easy to see her contributions to the disintegration of what starts out as a promising marriage.  Both are veteran Broadway performers and Kendrick has been making a movie name for herself in such offerings as Pitch Perfect and Into The Woods.  Jordan is the better trained singer of the two and delivers his songs with conviction.  Kendrick has a nice natural voice but a lack of formal training causes her to high belt through her nose a little too much and it eventually gets irritating.

The comic numbers (Shiksa Goddess, Summer in Ohio) work a bit better in the opened up world of the film than the more dramatic and heartfelt numbers (See I’m Smiling, Nobody Needs To Know).  Interior monologue ballads are difficult to give visual interest and it’s a lot easier to visualize a stripper and her snake Wayne, than to find a way to make moments of angst and marital discord appealing.  Ultimately, the film fails to completely capture interest as there’s only so much that can be done and each new set piece feels like LaGravenese is just trying too hard.

The film is worth a look as a record of a small chamber musical in filmic form, something you just don’t run across every day.  It feels very much like a small little art house title that should be watched with a few close theater friends with a bottle of wine with everyone singing along to the chorus of the Schmuel Song.  As a movie for general consumption, however, it’s not a notable success.

Unaffordable brownstone.  Convertible driving.  Gratuitous closet of Jewesses.  Clock storytelling.  Gay dwarf.  Embarrassing auditions.  Snooty book parties.  Too many drinks at the bar.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

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