Thursday, March 5, 2015

A tale of blossoming love

They say a new ranking year doesn't really get started until you see something you love.

(I don't know who says that. Shhh. You're getting sidetracked.)

Well, 2015 is officially GAME ON.

And when I talk about a tale of blossoming love, I'm not describing the plot of The Last Five Years. I'm talking about me falling in love with The Last Five Years over the last three days.

Depressed by the 1-2 punch of The Wedding Ringer and Jupiter Ascending that started my year, I was particularly susceptible to seeing a 2015 movie that actually figured to be good pop up on iTunes. The Last Five Years had only just gotten a theatrical release on February 13th, but you can't hold a thing like that against a movie these days. The game has changed.

The movie was only even on my radar because one of my friends in the Flickchart Facebook group, a noted musical theater buff, had been talking up its arrival for a while. And when it finally came, it didn't disappoint her. She ranked it 45th out of the 2300+ movies she had ranked, the highest she had ever ranked a movie on a first-time viewing since she began using the site.

Seemed worth a gamble.

Since I watched it on Monday night, my life has been kind of dominated by this thing.

But before I go singing its praises (pun intended), I should probably tell you a little bit about it, shouldn't I?

The plot is simple. Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan star as Cathy Hiatt and Jamie Wallerstein, a cute couple of New Yorkers who fall head over heels for each other and begin a doomed five-year relationship. We know it's doomed because the first number, sung by Cathy, comes in the immediate wake of reading the breakup letter he wrote her. We've begun at the end of their relationship, but hold on, that's not all. The second number -- this time sung by Jamie -- plunges us five years into the past, to their first romp in the hay, when he's reveling in her lack of Jewishness and how it would crush his mother. The story continues on that way, with Jamie's songs moving forward in time, and Cathy's moving backward.

There's something so simple and so fundamentally appealing about this format. It means the movie is essentially a sine wave of emotion, reaching a low point at the beginning and at the end, and a high point in the middle. Even within that structure, though, there's melancholy alternating with joy on every other track. The opening juxtaposition of Cathy's remorseful "Still Hurting" and Jamie's jubilant "Shiksa Goddess" gives us an idea what we've got in store, and keeps us from ever staying down for long. And it says something profound about how the two aspects of their relationship -- the initial joy and the eventual pain -- inform each other and ultimately intertwine. Kind of like in any relationship, which experiences its ups and downs even in good times.

What's wrong in their relationship isn't anything so profound. Jamie, an aspiring writer, has his novel published and becomes an overnight success. Cathy, an aspiring stage actress, trudges through a series of uninspiring auditions that go nowhere. Much as they would both like it to be otherwise, the relationship can't handle the disparity in their levels of self-actualization, and they eventually and perhaps inevitably land on different planes of existence. Their earnest attempts to save things are what give the movie its tragic soul.

So how much do I love this movie?

Well, I gave it "only" 4.5 stars on Letterboxd. But that was Monday night. Consider the events since then:

1) On Tuesday afternoon I watched it again. I was home with only my younger son, who had a whopping 4.5 hours worth of naps during the day. During the afternoon one, once I had determined I had had a productive enough morning, I gave the movie a second watch before my rental was set to expire later that night. It therefore joins a select few movies that got multiple watches during a single rental period.

2) On Tuesday evening I contemplated watching it a third time. I considered pitching it to my wife. The kids were in bed early, so if we'd started around 7:30, we could have watched it again before the rental expired around 9:15. (She didn't need to know about the second viewing that afternoon.) That would have been three times in 24 hours and twice in the same day. But I abandoned the plan when I saw that it would have required too much of a sales job on my exhausted wife, who is less inclined toward musical theater than I am anyway.

3) Later on Tuesday evening I purchased the soundtrack from iTunes. Freed from watching the visuals, I figured I could concentrate more on the thought-provoking and clever song lyrics. With an $11.99 investment added on to the $6.99 I'd already paid for the rental, that was nearly $20 spent on this movie in just over 24 hours.

4) On Wednesday morning I wrote a review of The Last Five Years for ReelGood. I tweaked it and fussed over it for probably two hours after I was finished. Granted, that was in part because my children kept bothering me. (Children. Who knew they needed things.) If you want to read it, the link may be up on the right by the time you read this.

5) On Wednesday afternoon I listened to the soundtrack on my iPod. This was instead of talking to my child -- the one who can talk -- while walking him to the park. That's not entirely unprecedented, since a long walk can feature long periods of silence, and I'd rather fill that silence with something in my ears. I figured that while listening to music (as opposed to a podcast), I could drop my earphones and answer any question he had to ask, without really losing anything. Nope. I got really annoyed whenever he interrupted me ... but to be fair, my suspicion that he had nothing really to say was confirmed.

6) At the park while he was playing and my younger son was napping, I finished listening and became highly annoyed when I discovered that the final song had failed to copy over to my iPod. I felt robbed of the movie's highly cathartic ending.

7) Now it's late Wednesday night and I am writing this post.

So what does Thursday hold? It remains to be seen.

Why do I love this movie so much?

For one, it seems like the modern-day musical I've been yearning for ever since Rent underwhelmed me 15 years ago. My then-girlfriend took me to see it on Broadway, fulfilling a desire I'd had for years. Perhaps it could never live up to that hype, as I walked away unsatisfied, and have yet to watch the film version. But the idea of a really terrific musical set in modern times stuck with me, which is probably why I reacted so positively to John Carney's Once, and stuck with the TV show Smash through its entire run, even as it underwent a demonstrable decrease in quality. The Last Five Years has scratched an itch I hadn't even consciously acknowledged before I saw it.

While my first exposure to this material is the film, and I will likely hold that above any other version of it, I suspect most of what's terrific about this show is there in book, not what Richard Lagravenese brought to it in his adaptation. I love his adaptation, but it's the songs and lyrics that so transport me. The life given them by Kendrick and Jordan is undoubtedly a major factor, especially since I have a wee crush on Kendrick (and like Jordan from the aforementioned Smash). But I give primary credit to the music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, who knows how to blend the happy and the sad, the hilarious and the lacerating. He's literate without overwriting, and he's emotional without being schmaltzy. Well-played, good sir.

The filmmaking itself is also totally captivating. As I understand that the show itself is pretty minimal, featuring only Jamie or Cathy on stage with barely even any prop or set accompaniment, Lagravenese's fleshing out of the scenes is an unqualified success. He also sends his camera moving around his actors in subtle but inventive ways, adding a degree of difficulty to capturing the impassioned performances by the two leads. Just because he's filming a show, it doesn't mean he's trapped in a stage mentality, and the ways he bursts out of that are nothing short of enthralling.

And then there's the fact that I'm always drawn to intelligent attempts to analyze people's behavior in relationships. Some of my top movies of the year (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Ruby Sparks) have been about that ... not just casually about that, but specifically about that. The Last Five Years does not examine this with the same rigor as those, nor is it the movies those are ... but the fact that I'm even mentioning it in the same sentence means I think it warrants the comparison.

So you should go out and see this movie right away, right?

Depends. I'm not so sure it works as well for someone who's tepid on musicals. I'd like to think that a great movie overcomes a viewer's ingrained aversion to its genre, but the fact of the matter is, I have only my own subjective perspective to draw on. I love musicals -- ones that are done well, anyway -- so I'm within this movie's target audience.

More than anything, I'm grateful to The Last Five Years for reminding me that I do indeed love musicals. Movies like the recent versions of Les Miserables and Into the Woods may conspire to convince me otherwise, but then movies like The Last Five Years come along to save me. They wrap me up in a spell, and leave me wanting to consume no other form of sustenance for the time they've got their hold one me.

If that's not love, I don't know what it is.

Well, it's obsession at the very least.

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