So here’s the setup: it’s a musical about the relationship between two people who have been together for five years, but we see each character’s perspective in opposite chronological order so one character first appears at the end of the relationship, and the other first appears at its beginning; by the end of the movie, we’re seeing the first character excited about the relationship’s start while the second one has packed his things and is leaving for good.
This is an interesting premise, right? And as an interesting premise that’s focused so tightly on the experiences of its two main characters, one would hope that there might be an interesting story about incompatibility and miscommunication and all the things that can result in a relationship falling apart without it really being anyone’s fault. Part of the allure of the story is that we’ll get to see the events of the first half from the other side in the second, and we’ll have a more complete picture of what’s going on.
Instead, what we get with The Last Five Years is a pretty standard story about a man who’s too self absorbed to recognize the frustration his partner’s going through as his career takes off while hers remains in perpetual limbo. There’s no subtlety in the circumstances between our two main characters, Cathy Hiatt and Jamie Wellerstein. Cathy is a struggling theater actress who’s trying to get a foothold in her chosen career, while her boyfriend (and eventual husband) Jamie skyrockets to stardom as a bestselling author whose first book gets published before he turns twenty-five. The imbalance is painfully broad throughout, with Cathy never having even a small professional victory and Jamie suffering no visible setbacks (his most significant complaint is that his publisher keeps throwing parties to celebrate the number of weeks his book has been at the top of the bestseller list, and he’s expected to attend all of them). The arc of the story lacks any nuance, as we see from the very beginning Jamie’s clearly a pretty egotistical person (his first song is about how happy he is to be dating Cathy because she isn’t Jewish and that’s really going to irritate his family), and Cathy mostly lets herself get swept up in his presence (her first song, which is about the immediate aftermath of their breakup, focuses entirely on Jamie’s flaws and justifications for why he’s left).
Basically, what I’m trying to say is that Jamie’s a prick, and the more I learn about him the more I dislike him. Cathy, similarly, is pretty much flawless as a character (other than her inability to land an acting gig, which is the sort of thing that’s pretty much outside the control of most people in the real world anyway), which makes her sympathetic, but like Jamie, not very interesting.
Of course, these complaints are probably easily enough deferred by the fact that this movie is a musical, and an adaptation of a theater musical at that, and it means that the conventions of the genre dictate that character complexity is secondary to the importance of conveying the desired emotional arc. Broad characters with big, easily readable emotions are a staple of theater, and on that metric this movie succeeds beautifully. The mirrored arcs of Jamie’s progression through and Cathy’s reflection on their relationship leads to some really satisfying moments, like the duet at the halfway point which begins with Jamie’s half of a conversation leading up to his marriage proposal and ends with Cathy’s half of that same conversation as their stories pass by each other. Even the movie’s ending, which is a second duet sung by Cathy at the relationship’s start and Jamie at its end is poignant as their goodbyes carry very different but parallel meanings. I still don’t sympathize with Jamie at all (his motivations for the string of selfish things he does in the course of the relationship remain unabashedly founded in male entitlement), but I can see his sadness that he’s failed at maintaining this relationship, even if he doesn’t seem to really understand how he’s at fault.
All in all, this movie isn’t a bad musical. It hits the emotional beats it wants to hit, and the soundtrack is entertaining enough. The two leads are totally engaging to watch with their happy moments being easy enough to buy into, and their sad ones being equally believable. I was just hoping that there would be more layering to a story that had such an interesting structural premise, and on that metric I find myself disappointed. If you’d like to give The Last Five Years a shot, you can find it on Netflix currently.