If Anna Kendrick were to appear in an episode of Duck Dynasty, I'd watch the hell out of that Duck Dynasty hour. And I fucking hate Duck Dynasty.
Yet I'd tune in because Anna Kendrick has proven, time and time again, that she can do no wrong. She's a singular presence in Hollywood right now, an enormously gifted, Oscar-nominated pre-30-year-old actress who's impossible to dislike. Think about it—she's just as talented as her similarly in-demand peers but doesn't have Jennifer Lawrence's selfie scandal, Anne Hathaway's preternatural hate-me-now target on her back, Kristen Stewart's social awkwardness, or Shailene Woodley's kooky 'modern-day hippie chick' aesthetic. She's just the fun-loving queen of Twitter, a naturally charismatic beauty whose looks merely complement her status as the Internet's current main squeeze.
On the emphatic recommendation of my Complex Pop Culture colleague Tara Aquino, though, I stopped ignoring Kendrick's soon-to-be cult flick Pitch Perfect in late 2012, and the attraction was instantaneous once Kendrick sang David Guetta's "Titanium" in the shower. I understood the hype surrounding both Kendrick and the movie; I started following her Twitter account that same night. I became an official "Annamaniac," or a "Drickhead." (I prefer the former nickname, for obvious reasons.)
Before the Toronto International Film Festival started, however, I had no interest in spending 90 minutes watching Kendrick's latest movie, The Last Five Years. Why? It's a musical, and the only kinds of movies I hate worse than romantic comedies starring Jennifer Aniston or Kate Hudson are musicals. For anyone who's read my weekly Permanent Midnight column, the reasons should be obvious. As someone who's grown up loving horror and all things cinematically dark and nefarious, I'm unable to just say "to hell with it" and watch schmaltzy films in which the characters converse in only sing-song. While others in the theater were fighting back tears during Les Miserables, I was suppressing laughter as stars like Russell Crowe and Sacha Baron Cohen awkwardly bellowed out dialogue.
Then again, I'm also human, so the prospect of finding out whether Anna Kendrick could make sitting through a musical any easier for me inevitably usurped my initial anti-Last Five Years stance. And now that writer-director Richard LaGravenese's adaptation of Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown's popular off-Broadway play has screened, I'm of two minds—I still dislike musicals, but I'm also that much more impressed by Anna Kendrick.
Despite his actors' vibrant and committed performances, LaGravenese can't hide the fact that The Last Five Years' story is about a rudimentary as romance dramas get. There's a non-linear structure at work to distract you from the plot's unoriginality, covering a young married couple's half-decade's worth of happiness, heartbreak, and disintegration through a grab-bag series of vignettes. In one scene, they're having sex for the first; moments later, it's three years into the future and he's eye-banging sexy ladies at a work function while she sits alone on a couch, aware of what he's doing. There's even the cliché where the man's on-the-road success coincides with the wife's inability to do more than wait at home. Jamie Wellerstein (Jeremy Jordan, who also starred in the original stage production) is a hotshot novelist whose first book, published by the major Random House label, is a best-seller, but Cathy Hyatt (Kendrick) is a struggling actress whose theater auditions produce little more than frustration and self-defeat. It's Screenwriting About Infidelity 101.
But wait until you see how Anna Kendrick sells every last bit of lyrical hokum. With the same butter-smooth and cherubic voice that turned the Pitch Perfect soundtrack's "Cups" into an unlikely radio smash, she infuses the cheesiest of lines with a radiant mixture of heart, soul, and playfulness. After Jamie proposes to her, Kendrick's Cathy sings, "I want to be your wife!/I want to bare your child!/I want to die knowing I lived a full life in your arms!"—somehow, she rises above that simplistic pap. Later in the scene, Kendrick sings "Is that the museum?/Can we go see the dinosaurs?" and actually manages to spare you the embarrassing giggles. Her request to go see dino bones sounds downright angelic.
The best sequence in The Last Five Years is, unsurprisingly, a Kendrick solo. Cathy, already stressed out over her suspicions about Jamie's possible mistresses, sweats through the most paranoid stage audition since Natalie Portman's character's in Black Swan. The way Kendrick plays it, though, Cathy's uncomfortable experience is the audience's comedic gain. She sings her inner monologue out-loud, ripping apart her personal wardrobe choices, questioning why the casting director is taking so many notes, and capping the frantic self-deprecation off with The Last Five Years' funniest and most unexpectedly lethal one-liner, at the exchange of the aforementioned Les Miserables—looking at the three men judging her audition, Cathy sings, "Why am I working so hard?/These people cast Russell Crowe in a musical—Jesus!"
The crowd at yesterday's TIFF screening applauded, though that's not a surprise since the audience was all press and industry folks who've probably bad-mouthed Crowe's vocal limitations themselves. But in the moment, their cheers were undoubtedly more in response to having just witnessed Kendrick's five-minute showcase of nimble musicality and bang-up comedic timing.
Because of The Last Five Years, everyone in that theater, myself included, wouldn't hesitate to watch a new The Phantom of the Opera movie starring Anna Kendrick playing Christine Daaé and, gasp, Russell Crowe as the Phantom (though, dear lord, to be clear here, please don't let that ever happen). They'd know that at least one thing about it would be great.
The Last Five Years was recently acquired for distribution by RADiUS-TWC, with a Valentine's Day 2015 release date in the works.
For more of Complex Pop Culture’s coverage of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, click here.