Sundance aside, ‘Like Crazy’ is a tiny, intimate filmaside
How you feel about “Like Crazy’’ will depend on how you feel about puppy love in all its silliness and glory. If you’re still the right age or you remember that age clearly, you may welcome the chance to indulge the movie’s young couple, Anna (Felicity Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin), as they struggle with the INS - he’s American, she’s British, there’s a visa issue - and try to keep their flame lit across time and borders.
If the passion of youth fills you with churlishness, on the other hand, or if you’re having a bad day, or if you don’t enjoy talented actors improvising their way into sketchily detailed characters, Drake Doremus’s film may strike you as an active irritant. Either way, he has made exactly the movie he wanted to, and it’s less artless than it seems. Attention must be paid, even if you occasionally want to throw pots at the screen.
The plot’s simple: Anna flirts with Jacob, a teaching assistant in one of her classes, they spend an ecstatic summer together in defiance of her expired student visa, then try to recapture that bliss over the next few years. Anna’s parents (played by Alex Kingston and Oliver Muirhead) are supportive; Jacob apparently has no parents. They get involved with others: a sweet-natured doormat (Jennifer Lawrence) for Jacob; a tidy, needy Brit (Charlie Bewley) for Anna. What does mature love - actual love - look like, and can these two find it?
“Like Crazy’’ was a sensation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, winning a grand jury prize and a special award for Jones, who makes Anna’s self-absorption luminous. The movie comes to us on wide wings of hype, so the first thing you have to do is reset your expectations. This is not a big movie; on the contrary, it’s tiny, intimate, hand-held, handmade. Doremus takes the DIY mumblecore esthetic of “Hannah Takes the Stairs’’ and his own earlier comedy, “Douchebag,’’ and applies it to a love story. There’s a treacly piano soundtrack here and there, but otherwise the film works hard to seem “real,’’ as though we’re sampling the couple’s relationship over time and privy to the long view they can’t see.
This approach risks banality, and often “Like Crazy’’ falls right in. Doremus comes from an improv-theater background, and the movie wasn’t so much scripted as heavily outlined, with the actors creating their characters and dialogue over several weeks of rehearsals and on the set. The process is a compressed version of what Mike Leigh does in films like “Another Year’’ and “Secrets & Lies,’’ but the problem is that Anna and Jacob just aren’t as interesting as anyone in a Mike Leigh movie. That’s the point, actually. They still haven’t become who they’re going to be.
You know what that means, don’t you? It means bad adolescent poetry. Thankfully, we only hear fragments of Anna’s writings to Jacob, just as Jacob, a would-be furniture designer, spends the entire movie drawing the same chair over and over. Doremus wants to use improv to find moments of raw, emotional truth, but “Like Crazy’’ mostly demonstrates the limitations of the approach. Good screenwriters can find moments of truth that are more concise and less sloppy, and they can make them seem “real’’ in the bargain. At their worst, the lovers here aren’t uninteresting - they’re just indistinct, almost generic.
At the movie’s best, when cold, hard reality kicks in during the latter scenes, Doremus makes it clear that growing up is about bringing oneself into focus. It’s not by accident that Anna and Jacob’s relationship seems built on cuddling rather than sex, or that they appear more defined, if less idiotically happy, with other people. “Like Crazy’’ gets the evanescence of young passion right - the way it ultimately has to burn off, leaving us standing in an unfamiliar adult world. But it never convinces us of the fire itself.