LONDON - When you stop to think about it, “like crazy” is a curiously cautious modifier to weld to any expression of devotion, placing as it does the safe distance of simile between love and madness, where many would describe those two states as sequential. If only on a semantic level, loving someone like crazy isn’t quite the same as being crazy in love; it’s less reckless, more self-aware, less… well, crazy.
I very much doubt this was on writer-director Drake Doremus’s mind, nor should it have been, when he titled his Sundance-laurelled romantic drama “Like Crazy.” But the distinction seems apt for a film whose two young, geographically separated protagonists seemingly spend several years acting out a love story, as opposed to actually living one.
As winsome college students Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones) find their romance repeatedly arrested by real life—native Londoner Anna’s US visa expires, forcing protracted across-the-pond negotiations that culminate in a premature marriage—distance swiftly becomes its defining characteristic. As the relationship itself takes a backseat to its reparation, the harried lovers must consistently chase and recreate their initial feelings for each other.
That’s a pointedly sad summary of romance in the distraction-strewn 21st century, and a loaded premise for a feature film. So it’s hard to pin down precisely why “Like Crazy,” until a pleasingly ambivalent conclusion, feels so wan and emptily precious in its exploration of this scenario. Perhaps it’s because, much like the spoiled, directionless pair at its center—who bemoan the circumstances keeping them apart as they bat away certain sacrifices that could keep them together—the film wants it both ways, inviting the audience to lose themselves in the swirl of a star-crossed romance while the filmmakers zero in on eminently credible but dramatically dry practicalities. International visa wrangling, real and relatable problem that it is, isn’t the most compelling hook for a love story, particularly when the characters’ ample social privileges don’t contribute much in the way of peril: this isn’t “Last Resort” we’re talking about here.
All of which is to say that as much as I believed “Like Crazy,” tenderly told cautionary tale that it is, I didn’t particularly feel it: I found myself watching the film with all the surface sympathy one musters for second-hand accounts of an acquaintance’s personal misfortune. That might be because Jacob and Anna, as written, never feel to us like more than passing acquaintances themselves. Both heavier on characteristics than actual character (He makes furniture! She makes scrapbooks! They both love Paul Simon!), they sorely want for context outside their own relationship. For two attractive, personable twentysomethings, it’s remarkable how few close friends they seem to have between them: only Anna’s loving but invasive parents (Alex Kingston and Oliver Muirhead) provide fleeting links to the outside world, even if it’s a world so bourgeois as to grant Laphroaig whisky the status of tap water.
Felicity Jones, recipient of a jury prize at Sundance that may reflect as much on her fine performance as on the desirability of the plummily-accented dreamgirl she plays, is a sufficiently astute actress to turn this haziness to her advantage. (“Only the smudgeness of it,” to crib a telling line from one of Anna’s twee but not-unpromising student poems.) In her best scenes, particularly those that allude to Anna’s functional alcohol dependency, Jones carefully outlines the missing parts of a wary young woman still in search of her own motor, daring to render her petulant and only sporadically likeable in the process.
Yelchin, on the other hand, rather fades into the character’s irresolute blandness: sweet kid that he is, it’s difficult to see what makes both Jones and Jennifer Lawrence (affecting in a crucially underwritten role as Anna’s L.A.-based romantic rival) so keenly hinged on his affections, furthering the rather diagrammatic nature of the romance at hand. Doremus, for his part, seems to shirk drama and outright conflict in favor of cute, high-style editing decisions: too many scenes saunter casually into the aftermath of a conflict or breakup, or politely duck out just as things start looking hairy, needlessly abbreviating emotional transitions even as they create interesting rhythmic fillips.
Other stylistic choices are more derivatively unsuccessful: stock date montages serve as idle shorthand for the forging of a personal connection, while one tricksy time-lapse shot appears to imply that Anna spends six months in a Heathrow arrivals hall. At its most banal, the film underlines the capital-P Poignancy of their separation with emphatically twinned activity shots, capped with the line, “Do you wanna come over?” – at which point this sweet but rigidly uncrazy film plays less like an incisive contemporary romance than a well-shot cellphone commercial. Perhaps, for these intriguingly affectless Generation Y-ers, that’s what love feels like.
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