Moviepilot recently put out an article comparing and contrasting “The Last Five Years” with “La La Land”. I like that this article exists because I feel there are lots of thematic similarities between these two films. However, I disagree with a lot of the opinions in it.
Let’s start with some similarities, though. Both movies revolve around a fundamentally dysfunctional relationship. One person in the relationship seems to obtain more success than the other. The less successful one ends up resenting the more successful one for their lack of success, and the whole thing falls apart. (Usually involving one or both people being complete dicks to the other.) But that’s about it.
1) In La La Land, the story revolves around two characters that are fairly unlikeable. Ryan Gosling’s character ends up being a pretentious jazz enthusiast who thinks he’s the sole savior of jazz and is willing to go to any lengths to prove that (even if that means literally not doing his job and getting mad when he gets fired from it). Emma Stone’s character is a struggling actress who ends up being a bit all over the place (including forgetting a date with her kinda-boyfriend(?) in lieu of setting up a date with Ryan Gosling). You don’t really see why the two of them like each other. Ryan Gosling is pretty much a dick to Emma Stone from the moment they meet, and at some point, it turns to that “playful assholish behavior” and they magically fall in love while dancing in an observatory. Then she accuses him of selling out when he joins a band and he accuses her of only liking him when he fails and it all falls apart. The problem with this is that you don’t really feel it. It doesn’t feel real. Part of it is that you never buy the fact that they liked each other in the first place. Neither of them has much chemistry together. They’re not terribly kind to each other for most of the movie. Both of them are a bit pretentious and full of themselves. There’s nothing in there for the audience to connect with, aside from the concept of wanting a dream and struggling to achieve it.
In The Last Five Years, the story revolves around a set of flawed, but relatable, characters. When Jaime (Jeremy Jordan) and Cathy (Anna Kendrick) meet, you feel the spark. There’s none of that nonsense where the guy acts like a dick and gives the girl no discernible reason to like him. Both Jaime and Cathy seem interested in and supportive of what the other does. Until Jaime becomes a successful writer and Cathy’s acting career stalls as she spends summer after summer doing community theatre. She gets jealous of his success, he cheats on her, it all falls apart. But with these characters, you can actually feel their feelings. You understand why they’re feeling the way they are. You see Jaime go from supportive and lovestruck to exhausted and hurt as he’s made to feel guilty about his success (all of which leads him to the unforgivable act of cheating, but that’s a different matter.) You see Cathy go from loving and supportive to resentful and hurt as Jaime’s success takes his time away from her and her own career stalls far below where she wants it to be. And it feels real because you can feel their successes and heartbreak. The Last Five Years takes the time to develop its characters (through the usage of each song as a monologue for whichever character is singing it) so that the audience is able to relate to them as people, not just relate to their struggle of achieving a dream.
2) I disagree that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have chemistry. At no point when watching La La Land did I particularly like either one of their characters or understand what one saw in the other. I didn’t particularly believe their relationship. It felt glossy and fake, like a lot of La La Land in general. I barely remember their names. It’s as though the director and writer lost the characters somewhere in the process of being nostalgic to old Hollywood. Instead of people, we got hollow caricatures of people who would’ve been more interesting in older movies.
While both Jaime and Cathy have some pretty awful flaws, you can see why they fell for each other. The scenes they share together when everything is fine in their relationship ooze with chemistry. Some of that is because Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan are inherently likable, but much of it is that the writing and structure of the songs and story sell their relationship (probably partially since The Last Five Years is loosely based off of the writer’s actual failed marriage.)
3) It really helps a musical if the songs are remotely memorable in any way. Sure, La La Land’s songs are easily transferable and not beholden to its place in the film, but that also makes them a bit bland. The only song I vaguely remember from La La Land is the opening number – a song which isn’t even indicative of the film that follows it. It’s not really a great thing when your most interesting song is the opening number, and none of the other songs are memorable. There’s a saying in theatre that you wanna wow the audience at the beginning and at the end. As long as you get the first song right and the last song right, you’ve succeeded because they’ll remember it. If the end is disappointing or forgettable, the audience walks out on that note. La La Land fails in this regard. It’s never anywhere near as good as its first song. The first song sets you up for a movie that never comes. Stylistically, the first song of La La Land is unlike anything else in the movie. It really feels like a totally different thing that was tacked on to the beginning of the movie.
The Last Five Years, however, begins with a memorable song, ends with a memorable song, and has at least one memorable song between the two. “Still Hurting” is one of the best-known songs of the musical, which is what the film opens with. The finale is the seven-minute epic “Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You” which manages to end the whole movie on a note of both happiness and sadness. It leaves you remembering something. Plus, at least “Still Hurting” is stylistically representative of the musical you’ll be getting for the rest of the movie. You really don’t want your opening number to sound like it’s from a different movie.
4) I agree that La La Land had really beautiful visuals. That was the best part about that movie. But also one of its biggest problems. It seems as though the team got lost in making the movie look really pretty that they forgot to give it any kind of heart. There’s a beautiful number where the two characters dance through an observatory and it’s probably the best part of the movie. Couldn’t tell you what the song was about. Or really how they even ended up at the observatory. Or why. But it was a pretty dance with pretty visuals. La La Land relies on its visuals to hide the lack of soul the rest of the film has (which is ironic since it’s supposed to be about jazz. Some of the coldest, joyless jazz I’ve ever heard.)
The Last Five Years elects to focus on the characters and music and benefits from that choice. Sure, there aren’t really any standout visual moments. But it was also shot on half the budget that La La Land had and was designed to be much more intimate. And for the story it’s telling, it works better. It lets the characters shine instead of having the visuals overshadow them. You feel for the characters in The Last Five Years. It’s not just a collection of enjoyable dances.
Ultimately, I am glad both movies exist. I’m always happy for more musicals to be made. But if we’re gonna compare the two, it’s no question which is better. La La Land loses itself amongst its visuals, so much so that it ends up feeling lifeless. Conversely, the Last Five Years skips out on elaborate visuals for a more emotionally satisfying story. In my opinion, of course.