It's a simple story, one that has been told countless times on movie screens. Two attractive, intelligent young people meet, have a sweet courtship, fall in love...and then find obstacles to their happiness.
"Like Crazy", the latest screen incarnation of modern love, finds fresh filmic techniques to tell the story, and puts a new spin on separation, temptation, and loss of innocence. It works. And in spite of early misgivings, I wound up liking it. A lot.
It's lighter than air, which is why its emotional punch comes as such a shock. The audience at the packed house where I saw this was attentive and absorbed, but audibly distressed at the fadeout. "Like Crazy" gets under a viewer's skin, and quietly makes you care about the future of these characters. After a first half-hour where the chemistry between the two leads grows tender and strong, and the romance and physical attraction is palpable, the suspense of their attempts to overcome their weaknesses, in the face of legal hardship, is agitating, and sad.
Anna (Felicity Jones) an aspiring writer from England, is in Los Angeles on a student visa when she meets Jacob (Anton Yelchin), a student at the same college, who is also a furniture designer. They meet and begin a relationship that is as natural as a movie coupling can be. It's cute, it's physical, and it's filled with small gestures of caring and playfulness. It is an astute recreation of first love. Director Drake Doremus, and his Co-Writer Ben York Jones, used memories of long-distance relationships of their own, to create the premise for the film.
Long-distance. That's what occurs when Anna overstays her student visa, is caught, and must return home to England, legally forbidden to return to the States, interrupting their constant companionship, which had allowed their bond to develop. The manner in which Anna and Jacob adjust to their separation, enter into new relationships, suffer from longing, come together for romantic visits, and take the impetuous steps toward marriage, infidelity and heartbreak, forms the remainder of this surprising and touching film.
Visually, the film was worrisome to me at the start by the use of a hand-held camera, (the "indie" badge of honor), that was noticeably bouncy in the opening ten minutes. After a while, though, the camera settled down, and its mobility started to be a plus, keeping the film light, and allowing us to go with them into the most intimate of spaces.
I also noticed, and appreciated, a nicely worked-out scheme in which Anna and Jacob often appear in a scene with a wall between them, or the line of a door, or are posed standing face to face with backgrounds of different designs or textures. This was a nice way to represent their togetherness and separateness at the same time, the constant barriers that they must break as a couple.
I wish I could have been on the set to watch this film being made. One reason "Like Crazy" feels fresh and immediate is the contribution of each performer. Felicity Jones has received the lion's share of praise for her embodiment of a passionate, flawed and creative free-spirit. The praise is entirely deserved. For me, though, the film belongs to Anton Yelchin, whose soft-spoken boyish generosity is the strong center around which Anna's quirky energy revolves. Yelchin seems to age visibly as the film progresses. His low-key delivery, and the intensity by which he pays attention to his co-star, rivet one's attention to him. When he presents Jones with a gift, it is as heartfelt a gesture as anything currently at the movies. (I will hereafter look at a chair with new admiration and affection!)
There is another interesting element to their performances that is closely tied to the writing and direction: Jones and Yelchin are said to have improvised much of their dialog, using the screenplay as a blueprint. Allowing this contribution, from actors who may be very close to their characters in experience and temperament, enhances the movie's originality, and adds unpredictable layers of complexity to their interpretations of newly-found love.
In supporting roles, I especially liked Jennifer Lawrence and Charlie Bewley as Samantha and Simon, Jacob's and Anna's respective rebound love interests. Lawrence draws on deep reserves of emotion for a heartbreaking and very real character. Bewley mostly overcomes an underwritten part, and creates a strong and memorable screen presence. I hope they do more serious types of films like this that will interest me.
A couple of minor flaws bear mentioning. There are gaps in the plotting toward the climax. For instance, when a marriage proposal is made late in the film, one can't be sure if the character making the proposal is aware that his intended is already married. I think some tighter scripting, adding some key moments when the characters talk about their dilemma and discuss options, might have made the ensuing action more believable. And I am ready for Hollywood to retire a new cliche: that of having a character's secrets exposed by the accidental reading of an i-phone text. ("Ides of March", which I will review later, also uses this device for a major plot-point. Enough!)
But these are technical quibbles, that are not enough to ruin my enjoyment of the central relationship in "Like Crazy". A breezy film that plays like springtime love itself, it is a closely observed, bittersweet modern take on the well- traveled road of cinematic romance that, if it find its audience, will endure as a small classic.