Straightforward romance movies are few and far between these days, and they by and large follow some pretty solid genre conventions laid down over the decades. First and foremost is the happy, “Hollywood” ending, and it takes an ambitious film to even flirt with not delivering it. While Like Crazy doesn’t quite make good on its ambition, it’s by far the most realistic cinematic love story in years, with at least as much difficulty as joy. But while it’s original, it also feels like nothing so much as the stilted fan-fiction that comes after a first breakup instead of before.
Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones) meet-cute in a college writing seminar somewhere in Los Angeles; she’s a journalism major from Britain and he’s studying furniture design. She leaves a mash note on his car at the end of the course, including the disclaimer not to think she’s a nutcase, which he finds endearing.
Anna practically glows, with Deep Thoughts and poetry to make her stand out from, say, her roommate who prattles on about who’s wearing the same dress as whom. Jacob’s major flaw consists of introspective brooding, and Anna’s parents (Alex Kingston and Oliver Muirhead) are at least as taken with him as she is. They’re extremely young, extremely pretty, and have everything going for them. They fall madly in love, despite the fact that her student visa expires after graduation, and she decides to overstay by just a couple of months, with seemingly no thought that the US government might look critically on that if she leaves and tries to return. But of course it does, and she’s barred from re-entry.
One of the rudest awakenings of entry into adulthood is the realization that despite the overwhelmingly dominant cultural narrative, love does not in fact conquer all obstacles automatically. Jacob and Anna evidently have yet to learn this lesson, since soon after they part they try to make a transatlantic relationship work, with somewhat predictable results. Familiarity may breed contempt, but distance breeds jealousy and distrust, and the stress is overwhelming.
And yet they are So Much In Love, as they are drawn back to each other, even after they try to move on with Simon (Charlie Bewley) and Samantha (Jennifer Lawrence). Samantha, in particular, is at least as foolish as Jacob and Anna or else a candidate for canonization; either that or Jacob is overwhelmingly wonderful in some unseen way to inspire such devotion from two different women.
To the film’s credit, it avoids many pitfalls; the idea of Jacob moving to London instead of Anna to Los Angeles is floated more than once, although never very seriously. And the dialogue feels very realistic, both as written and as performed, with lines spilling out over each other conversationally. Yelchin and Jones each do a great job in acting and emoting, which is often necessary given how hesitant writer/director Drake Doremus is to use dialogue.
And yet, it can be as maddening to watch the story play out on screen as it would be in real life. Over and over these kids manage to act as stupidly as any real young couple lacking perspective might. I know the usual urging to “show rather than tell”, but these are two people pathologically incapable of communicating with each other — or with anyone else, for that matter — and as a result the film is incapable of communicating with the audience. It begs us to draw on our own experiences, when all I want is to know what the hell these kids are thinking, and far be it from them to talk to each other where we can see it.
I suppose in part the fact that it’s so maddening speaks to some sort of power in this story, but at the same time it speaks to the frustration that something that could have been fresh and original falls back into a different set of tropes. Jacob is reportedly based on Doremus himself, and he certainly falls into Mary Sue territory, and Anna is hopelessly idealized herself. They may talk more like real people than most romance film characters, but they just feel hollow inside.
Worth It: no, but don’t let this stop you from seeing it anyway; I have a feeling that reactions to this film are going to be highly personal.
Bechdel Test: pass.