The Last 5 Years tells the story of Jamie and Cathy’s relationship, from the moment they meet, through when they marry, to the moment, five years after they relationship began, their marriage ends. The musical is a series of sung monologues–Jamie and Cathy each telling the story of their relationship in alternating songs, that cover the relationship’s arc from opposite directions: Jamie from beginning to end, Cathy from end to beginning. Thus, Cathy’s first song is set the morning that she finds out that Jamie has left her and her last song takes place right after their first date. Jamie’s first song is just after he meets Cathy for the first time, and his last one is while he leaves her.
The structure of the show makes it likely that our sympathies will be with Cathy. Her first song, “Still Hurting” is devastating, and it is immediately followed by the callow “Shiksa Goddess” from the young Jamie. When I saw the show for the first time, I mostly hated Jamie for the first third of the show. And, when I screened the movie for my friends, most of them agreed.
I only changed my mind when I got up to the song “Story of Schmuel” (and not just because Jamie rhymes a town name as follows: “Plenty have hoped and dreamed and prayed / But they can’t get out of Klimovich /[…]/ Maybe it’s just that you’re afraid / to go out on to a limb-ovich”)
In the stage production I saw in college, when Jamie sings:
Na na na na na na na na
Cathy, you get to be happy!
Na na na na na na na
I give you unlimited time!
Na na na na na na na
Stop temping and go and be happy!
He was strained and a little forced. The impression I got was that he had written and offered this whole parable to Cathy because he didn’t know how to get her out of her rut — because her frustration acting had left her feeling like happiness was impossible, and it would take a miracle for her to be able to act (both in the sense of acting and of choosing).
This was the song where I saw that Jamie cared about Cathy in her particularity, but was struggling to find a way to support her. It reminded me of times when friends of mine have been paralyzed by depression or anxiety, and everything I want to encourage them to do (go for a walk, do something nice for themselves, come out and let me make them dinner) really is outside their power at the moment. My attempts to be helpful (and Jamie’s, too) can wind up being heard the way Allie Brosh illustrates in Hyperbole and a Half
Jamie seems to be trying to offer Cathy the gift that Valjean offered Javert in Les Miserables when the ex-con sings:
You are wrong, and always have been wrong.
I’m a man, no worse than any man.
You are free!
And there are no conditions, no bargains or petitions;
there’s nothing that I blame you for.
You’ve done your duty, nothing more
Both men are trying to let their partner out of the narrow, constricting cage they’ve placed themselves in — neither succeeds.
Later in the show, Jamie does even worse at trying to convey this idea to Cathy. In “If I Didn’t Believe In You” when he sings without cloaking his concern and his frustrations in a parable, he winds up angry and winds up mixing his intended reassurances with recriminations:
I don’t want you to hurt
I don’t want you to sink
But you know what I think?
I think you’ll be fine!
Just hang on and you’ll see-
But don’t make me wait till you do
To be happy with you
Will you listen to me?
Jamie is ultimately bad at channeling his care for Cathy into action, and the more powerless he feels, the worse he behaves, but these two songs were what convinced me that The Last 5 Years is a story about two people ineptly in love, not that, as one of my party attendees put it: “The problem with their relationship is that they’re both madly in love with Jamie.”
I’ll talk more about what the pair would have had to do differently to persist in their relationship in my next post on the film.
The movie is available to rent or buy from iTunes, and I heartily recommend that you do. Also in the Catholic Channel, Monique Ocampo has posted her synopsis/review of the film.