It sounds impossible: a musical about a failed five-year marriage in which Jamie Wallerstein (Jeremy Jordan), a successful young novelist, and his shiksa wife Cathy Hiatt (Anna Kendrick), a struggling young actress, never stop singing to each other. It worked like a charm when I saw it Off-Broadway in 2002 with the stellar Sheri Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz singing their broken hearts out. The score by Jason Robert Brown, a recent Tony winner for his musical of The Bridges of Madison County and now represented on Broadway by Honeymoon in Vegas, put a spell on anyone in earshot. The CD is a deserved cult item. But what works on stage becomes a dodgier situation when you put those two star-crossed lovers on camera in a near deserted New York. How do you reach lyrical heights when film grounds you to reality?
You don’t actually, despite director Richard LaGravense’s sincere efforts to do so. It helps that you can feel LaGravenese’s love for the material in every frame, even the contrived ones. He’s retained the film’s two-tiered structure in which Jamie sings his take on the story from the beginning of their relationship and Cathy goes backwards from the breakup. Don’t worry, you’ll find your balance. Kendrick and Jordan work miracles, giving glorious voice to their roles in performances that brim over with humor, heart and ravishing romance. Kendrick is sublime at showing why Cathy is resilient and still hurting. And Jordan cuts to the quick in the lyric, “I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy/I will not lose because you can’t win.” It’s easy to overlook the failings in The Last Five Years. Let it in and it knocks you back on your heels. Just like love.