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Movie review: Anna Kendrick shines in musical ‘The Last Five Years’

Anna Kendrick’s experience in Broadway productions helps her pull off a mostly musical role. (Thomas Concordia/RADiUS)

It's such a relief not to have to give spoiler warnings. The final tragedy of "The Last Five Years" is the breakup of a marriage, but it's laid out in the first scene, because the movie begins at the end. Confusingly enough, it also ends at the end.

The structure is strange, but also surprisingly effective. The musical, based on an off-Broadway production by Jason Robert Brown, is the story of Cathy (Anna Kendrick) and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), who fall in love, get married and drift apart. We see it all from each of their perspectives, with Cathy's retelling unfolding in reverse and Jamie's following a traditional structure. So after our devastating introduction to Cathy, who has just read a Dear John letter, we're launched back to the start of the couple's courtship, which is filled with laughter, sex and infinite possibility. The narratives cross paths the day Jamie and Cathy get engaged.

Director Richard LaGravenese helped adapt the production for the big screen, and he has kept the structure intact. This isn’t a musical in the sense of “Mamma Mia!” where spoken dialogue is punctuated by song-and-dance numbers. “The Last Five Years” is almost entirely sung. That guarantees only a niche appeal, which is a shame, because the music is gorgeous. Brown’s songs are as pretty as they are complex. (He has won Tony Awards for “Parade” and “The Bridges of Madison County.”)

The plot isn’t quite as intricate. The trouble begins almost at the start of the relationship, with Jamie’s writing career taking a stratospheric turn as Cathy, an actress, is struggling through a soul-crushing series of failed auditions.

That being said, Cathy’s frustrations aren’t always tragic. Some are laugh-out-loud funny, as when she sings about her summer job performing with a ragtag bunch of eccentrics in Ohio, or when she rehashes what it’s like to audition for men who aren’t paying attention. (“Why is the director staring at his crotch? Why is that man staring at my résumé? Don’t stare at my résumé!”)

Musicals aren’t always the most nuanced medium, but they are an excellent way to tell stories about big highs and lows. When Jamie learns that Random House is interested in his first novel, his ecstasy is telegraphed with an energetic number and backup dancers. And when Cathy sings her slow opening song about Jamie giving up, it’s not just the tears that well in her eyes that make us also want to cry. The sad cello helps, too.

But it’s more than great dancing and tragic strings that elevate “The Last Five Years” to a very funny, deeply affecting portrait of love lost and found. Kendrick and Jordan are both Broadway performers with powerful voices, although Kendrick is better known as one of Hollywood’s brightest rising stars. Watching her here, you might think there’s nothing she can’t do. She’s equally adept at telegraphing humor and heartbreak, and her ability to cry on command makes beginning the story at its end work.

We don’t even know who this person is and already we want her to be okay.

PG-13 At Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains sexual material
and brief strong language. 94 minutes.

(3 stars)