‘The Last Five Years’ Review: Anna Kendrick’s Musical Romance Has More Ambition Than Heart

An admirably demanding sing-through format can’t make up for a lack of chemistry and characters that barely budge off the page

Anna Kendrick has become the new face of the movie musical, embracing both Broadway staples (“Into the Woods”) and younger-skewing pop pastiches (the “Pitch Perfect” movies). She splits the difference between classic and contemporary with “The Last Five Years,” a sung-through musical that originated off-Broadway and traces the dawn-to-demise epic sweep of a romance between an artsy, 20-something couple in New York. Unfortunately, the film is also Kendrick’s least enjoyable among her tuneful efforts, its considerable ambitions undermined by charmless songs and a frustratingly cursory love story.

A romance should make us fall in love — not necessarily with the characters, but at least with how the couple adore and appreciate each other. But “The Last Five Years” is much less interested in what Cathy (a blond Kendrick) and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) see in each other than in how his wunderkind success as a novelist and her steady failure as an actress sunk their marriage. That’s certainly a rich and compelling premise, but because we’re never given a reason to care about their relationship, we can hardly be expected to mourn their love when it dissipates before their eyes.

Jamie’s grand declaration of ardor, for example, is a song called “Shiksa Goddess” that expounds his mom’s inevitable disapproval of his falling for a non-Jewess, a ditty he croons while peeling off Cathy’s clothes. We all like boys who like their moms, but he can’t spare a stanza to note how pretty his new girlfriend is while he’s in bed with her? Oy gevalt. 

Without that emotional groL5Y_2undwork to establish the contours of Cathy and Jamie’s relationship, “The Last Five Years” is largely a numbing experience. The film’s entire first half feels curiously uneventful, even as Jamie finds literary triumph beyond imagination (or plausibility) and the pair eventually decide that they like each other enough to get hitched.

But Jamie and Cathy’s marriage is on the rocks even before they make it official. In the shadow of her husband’s achievements, Cathy’s insecurities as an actress bloom — “I suck, I suck, I suck, I suck,” she trills at another audition gone bad — as do her fears of being forced by failure to lead a normal, non-thespian life. But her aspirations toward the extraordinary are too poorly motivated (and smug) to sympathize with, as are Jamie’s acts of devastating selfishness. And even after five years with them, the couple feel so breezily sketched out they barely budge from the page.

Kendrick and Jordan (of TV’s “Smash” and Broadway’s “Newsies”) are each gifted singers on their own, but share about as much chemistry as a goldfish with a rolling suitcase; in most scenes, they’re just too different to forge a meaningful connection. The sing-through format eventually proves wearying, and Jason Robert Brown’s lyrics are perhaps too conversational: lines like “I want to be your wife, I want to bear your child” only stick in the mind for the wrong reasons.

At least director Richard LaGravenese (“Beautiful Creatures,” “P.S. I Love You”) captures the romance of falling in love in New York: the full foliage in summer, the dignified stone stoops, and the cozy apartments where all it takes to brighten up a room is a well-lit Christmas tree and a good story.