Spoiler Alert Saturday :: our thoughts on The Last 5 Years

4 Apr

So.  How angry were we both that this was not released into any theaters near us?  Very angry indeed.  But the internet is magic and facilitated some convenient, legal simultaneous viewing, so that’s nearly as good.

I have loved The Last 5 Years since high school (though as I realized tonight, some of my perceptions of its story have shifted since then, thanks to life experience and worldview and whatnot) and it was never a musical I thought about and said “that should be a movie!” because it’s… well, it’s a song cycle.  It’s not something that’s written or staged in the way of an active plot with such things.  And the non-linear timeline would probably throw people off.

Apparently, it threw them off enough that the movie only got limited release, but it sure did get made, and I’m glad of that.

And I am that person who only knew about it because of the upcoming movie (put Anna Kendrick in every musical), but ended up loving it anyway. My only context for it is the album, so seeing the movie was obviously a different experience for me. And, of course, they were able to do a lot more with the settings and costumes than they could in a stage production (there’s an amazing shot during “A Summer in Ohio” where Cathy is doing the Sound of Music hilltop twirling, complete with Maria-esque costume). But in general, I can see what a lot of the reviewers were talking about when they say that this is a very “theater” movie. It’s very aware of its stage roots, and it owns them. People who go into this blind (not likely, she said bitterly) are probably going to have the vague sense that something is off about it, because it’s not staged like a movie, that much – it’s staged like a show. Which I think works in its favor, because this particular show isn’t really for non-theater people anyway.

Contrasted with a show like Les Miserables or Into the Woods, The Last Five Years isn’t the kind of show that has wide appeal. It’s a story about two people falling out of love and slowly realizing it, and there are grand emotional moments, but there aren’t really standout songs like “One Day More” or “No One is Alone” that the public can latch onto. It’s a subtle show, too; if you try to explain it, it ends up sounding so generic. The plot isn’t the point, it’s the emotional journey of the characters, and that’s just not something a mainstream audience wants from its musicals. They want things like Wicked or Phantom or Cinderella that are stories with songs in them. Which is fine, of course, but that’s not what The Last Five Years is.

In a way, that’s nice.  That it’s something that’s got its audience.  But in a way, it really should be something that all audiences partake of.  Because the thing is, it’s succeeding at telling a story that a lot of other projects try and don’t succeed at: it’s deconstructing, essentially, the male idealization of a woman in relationships.  At first, Jamie casts Cathy as his manic pixie dream girl.  He’s riding around on a bicycle in his shorts, grinning and hitting on everything, but she’s a nice fantasy, the “shiksa goddess” that he hasn’t before had much of.  Things change, things improve for him, but things don’t really change for her, and while she also experiences a disillusionment with him (because at the beginning of relationships, or at least this one, it’s easy to have that sort of fantasy version of the other person, and she does this too, to a possibly lesser extent) he mostly experiences a disparity between the idea he had of her to begin with and the reality he now can’t avoid.

And one of the most interesting things about the story is that most of it is framed from Cathy’s point of view. The movie does a pretty good job of making this explicit: in a lot of the shots with both characters, Cathy is either at the foreground of the frame or she’s toward the center of it. There are exceptions (in one of the earliest songs, there’s a great shot of him in the foreground while she, out of focus, sings in the background before it shifts to focus on her), but in general, even the shots of Jamie by himself are either from Cathy’s POV or exaggerations of himself, as Cathy might see him. The framing of a movie is very different from that of a stage production, which means that Cathy’s POV can be made more explicit in this version. But even in the songs, we are shown how she is affected by Jamie’s success. Essentially, this is a male fantasy framed from the wife’s perspective, and how much it sucks for her when he gets on his pretentious self-serving high horse. I think that’s made more clear in the film than it was for me in the original recording, although perhaps it’s also because Jeremy Jordan plays douchebag amazingly well.

Having only seen an amateur production of the show and being intimately familiar with the album, I couldn’t say for certain what wasn’t in the show, implication-wise, but the most obvious add-in to the film was Jamie’s book reading.  His brilliantly pretentious book reading.  Light Out of Darkness, the most pretentious book title available.  (I love that what the book is about is never discussed.)  And the text from it that he shared?  Well, it sounded like lines from Mallory Ortberg’s Male Novelist Jokes, honestly.

And finally, one more shoutout to Anna Kendrick for her voice. I’m used to the album so occasionally I did wish that she’d been a bit less controlled, but in general she was lovely and everything I wanted. I am probably going to be playing the soundtrack on repeat for a while.

–your fangirl heroines.



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