It’s possible that some actors are born at the wrong time. Anna Kendrick has been a petite, sharp-edged presence in movies for more than a decade now, able to navigate comedy or drama as necessary. She’s a scene-stealer (and Oscar nominee) in supporting roles, a reliable pleasure when she gets a lead. Yet if you saw her in 2003’s “Camp,” in which the 18-year-old Kendrick positively murdered Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch,” you know that the girl was put on this earth to sing.
Sadly, we live in a time in which movie musicals aren’t bread-and-butter entertainment but occasional exotica. Kendrick has lucked out more than most: She was in the 2012 a cappella hit “Pitch Perfect” and plays a winsome Cinderella in the current “Into the Woods.” Still, when “The Last Five Years” opens on a forlorn Cathy (Kendrick) at the end of her marriage, her voice trying to soar and failing as she sings, “Jamie is over and Jamie is gone/ Jamie’s decided it’s time to move on/ Jamie has new dreams he’s building upon/ And I’m still hurting” — it’s as if a wandering talent has found its way home.
“The Last Five Years” is a pretty good movie expansion of a pretty good stage musical; what bumps it up into contention and makes it of interest beyond devotees of musical theater — you know who you are — is Kendrick, who plays the more neurotic half of a young couple with her emotions out there on her skin and in her voice. In this through-sung story of a starter marriage, you grieve for only one of the parties, and there’s a reason for that.
The musical, first staged in 2002, was written by Jason Robert Brown, and it rests on a sub-Sondheim gimmick: Cathy’s scenes (and songs) play out in reverse order, from breakup to new love, while her husband, Jamie (Jeremy Jordan, best known for Broadway’s “Newsies,” American Repertory Theater’s “Finding Neverland,” and TV’s short-lived “Smash”), has his scenes unfold in the usual direction. The couple only meet, chronologically speaking, at the show’s center, like two people gazing at each other through a revolving door.
On stage, this concept is easy to illustrate (and fudge) through lighting and blocking. In a movie — at least the movie that adapter-director Richard LaGravenese has made — realism demands that the action be brought out into actual apartments, parties, book readings, subway cars, and even outdoors. Sometimes this works: the first two numbers, the aforementioned “I’m Still Hurting” (Cathy) and “Shiksa Goddess” (Jamie), exchange the stage’s formal frame for the unexpected intimacy of movie close-ups. And sometimes it doesn’t: the third song, “See, I’m Smiling” (Cathy), takes place on a sunny lakefront, and the realism grimly exposes the self-conscious artifice that can plague modern musical theater.
“The Last Five Years” rights itself from there; the movie’s short, the songs are good (if too similar), and Kendrick throbs like a plucked string. The movie’s imbalance comes mostly because we connect with her character and less with Jordan’s Jamie. I’m not sure this is entirely the actor’s fault; if anything, his voice is a more flexible dramatic instrument than Kendrick’s, which threatens to go up her nose every so often. But “The Last Five Years” is about a marriage between one partner who makes it and one who doesn’t — Jamie’s a novelist who finds quick success and Cathy’s an actress who never gets past summer stock (viz., the very funny “Summer in Ohio”). Our sympathies tend toward the underdog even when she’s not played this vibrantly.
It’s also hard to buy Jamie as a Great Writer when nothing we hear of his work is very impressive and when Jordan’s performance is sensitive but ultimately shallow. Or is it because the backward/forward conceit of “The Last Five Years” allows us to see him as a cad from the start? Whatever the case, Jordan comes out of this movie respectably, while Kendrick comes out of it a star. In fact, she’s potentially the first great movie musical star of her generation. That and a MetroCard gets her on the subway.