The Last Five Years is a difficult movie to watch, and yet somehow I’ve still seen it several times. Quick synopsis: Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) and Cathy (Anna Kendrick) take turns singing songs about their five-year relationship from beginning to end, but while Cathy starts from the end and goes backwards, Jamie starts from the beginning and goes forward. They meet at the middle and then switch after Jamie’s proposal. For sure, part of the reason I’ve seen the movie so many times is the interesting chronology, and the fact that I love Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan and I could listen to them singing literally anything. But there’s also something about this story that stumps me.
This time watching, I tried to figure out what the stumper was. I was surprised to realize how egotistical Jamie is from the very beginning: “Jamie” is the first word of the movie, even though it’s Cathy’s song. In contrast, Jamie’s first several songs are essentially about himself, although he does mention how lucky he is to find his “muse.” So I thought maybe the message I could get from this movie was something about how our flaws don’t seem to matter when we’re in love. In fact, Jamie’s egotism remains somewhat well-hidden until he withdraws from being one half of a whole with Cathy. Before that, his flaws are acceptable, or even unnoticed, because he has found someone who doesn’t seem to mind them.
Isn’t that the message that we so often glean from romantic comedies? Everybody has problems, but eventually you’ll find someone and when you do your problems won’t matter. The other person will accept them or fix them or make it easy for you to forget about them, and if you’re lucky they’ll bring out the best in you. That’s why we’ve all got this crazy idea that “I’ll never be complete… I’ll never be alive… I’ll never change the world… until ‘I do.'” It’s like we’re each a work in progress, and we’re not finished until we can find somebody else who fits.
But I don’t like that lesson so much. For one thing, it puts our own self-improvement in the hands of another person. But, more importantly, what really gets me about The Last Five Years is the last scene. Anyone who has been through a relationship and a breakup has felt the vast array of emotions present in this scene; we watch Jamie write a note about how it simply doesn’t work between them anymore and then walk away at the same time as we see five-years-ago Cathy, giddy and thankful to say goodbye to her newfound love. In one camera pan, we have the magical beginning and the ending that’s so unremarkable that it hurts. Nothing huge happened to make Cathy and Jamie grow apart- nothing that we can chalk up to dramatics and Hollywood, anyway. Jamie and Cathy grew apart because jobs and lives and personalities became too difficult to make working on it worth it, and that’s something that can happen to anyone.
The Last Five Years hurts to watch, in other words, because the story it tells is so remarkably unremarkable. It’s a love that begins in a way that makes us hopeful and ends in a way that makes us feel like hope is lost. What can make these characters happy now? They’ve already said that they’ll never be happy without each other. And then they weren’t happy with each other, and now they’re not together at all. Are we to assume that they’ll each find someone else? That they’ll be alone? Will they ever be as happy again as they were with each other? These questions are painful to ask and impossible to answer, and that makes this movie tough.
But I still watch it. I do it for those couple of moments at the end, the moments in which there is nothing but pure hope. The morning after their first date, Jamie’s and Cathy’s hearts are so full and they feel an infectious sense of promise. Seeing that right next to their utterly deflated ending is heartbreaking, but it doesn’t mean that their time spent together was wasted. Instead, I think the lesson here is that there is nothing stronger than hope. With it, Jamie and Cathy can hold out through disappointing jobs and temptations and all the things that make life difficult. Without it, the same challenges become impossible.
Jamie and Cathy teach us that even things that are wonderful can come to an end; although some parts of life do go the way we want them to, sometimes there’s no reason why others just don’t. Sometimes something simply awful happens and suddenly life is no longer the same. But that doesn’t mean that life is ruined or that we have to just wait through the sad song montage until everything gets better. The Last Five Years tells us to sit through that awful moment and let it wash over us in the same way that we embrace hopeful beginnings, because we have no more power over these things than we do over falling in love.
Just because something ends does not mean that it was worthless. It does not mean that it was doomed from the beginning. It does not mean that we should give up control or hope. When a part of our life ends, we can look back on the happy times without tainting them- because they were happy, and that’s still allowed. And we can have hope for whatever comes next without believing that it has to “complete” us. That’s allowed too.
So, I love the music. I love the raw and eloquently expressed feelings. I love the creative take on moving through a story. But most of all I love that The Last Five Years reminds us to give equal weight to the happy parts and the sad parts, because together they make up our lives. They both make us feel something, even though we like some of those feelings better than others.
Every ending, no matter how painful, came from a beginning that’s worth remembering. This movie can teach us to look at life as a series of beginnings, to tinge all views with the brightness of hope, and to appreciate the bad alongside the good. In real life there are no finished products, no flawless people. The only way to make sure that every story has a happy ending is to make it end with hope. That way those bad parts, which hurt but which are still important, can become a part of the story too. Because, no matter the ending, The Last Five Years teaches us that every story deserves to be told.