Greetings again from the darkness. Adapting a hit stage production to the big screen is always a bit challenging. When it’s a full blown musical, the challenge grows exponentially. Throw in a highly unusual story-telling structure and limit 99% of the screen time to two characters and, well, a filmmaker is either off-the-charts ambitious or one who truly enjoys suffering for art.
Director Richard LaGravenese (P.S. I Love You) brings the hit off-Broadway musical by Jason Robert Brown to the screen, and features Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan as Cathy and Jamie, respectively. Ms. Kendrick has become the go-to actress for musicals with Into the Woods (as Cinderella) and the Pitch Perfect movies. She is a wonderful singer and a fine actress. Mr. Jordan is best known for TV’s “Smash” and for “Newsies” on Broadway. He too is a talented singer.
Surprisingly, it’s not the talented leads that provide the most interest here … it’s the story structure. As per the title, the story follows the couple’s relationship over a five year period. The opening scene features Cathy reading and reacting to the break-up note left by Jamie. The second scene features Jamie describing his joy when he first falls for Cathy, as they romp in bed. See, Cathy’s story goes from the end to the beginning, while Jamie’s story goes from the beginning to the end … intersecting only at the marriage proposal in the park. It’s a fascinating way to tell a story – not just two perspectives, but also in reverse order of each other!
The song lyrics act as the dialogue, and that’s where the transition from stage to screen falls a bit short. While the lyrics are clever and adequately describe each relationship change, those same lyrics and the non-stop singing, prevent the viewers from ever connecting to the characters … and more importantly, prevent us from understanding how these two characters ever connected to each other. Rather than a love story, it comes across as a moment of passion that turns into a relationship between two people who don’t have much in common and don’t particularly care for each other. And the real crux of the tension stems from Jamie’s skyrocketing novel writing career versus Cathy’s going-nowhere-but-Ohio acting career.
Cathy starts sad and ends happy, while Jamie starts happy (he found a Shiksa princess!) and finds a way to end his misery (writing a Dear Jane note). It’s Sunset to Sunrise, and Sunrise to Sunset. The “goodbye” finale is very creative and well done. This unusual story structure is quite interesting, and the lyrics are sharp … it’s the lack of spirit in the music, and the 90 minutes of the same two voices that prevent this from being something special.