Most movie romances dwell on the chase, fading to black shortly after both parties first acknowledge that, yeah, maybe they do love each other. In the first few minutes of Like Crazy, Anna (Felicity Jones), a young Englishwoman studying in Los Angeles, leaves a four-page handwritten profession of love under the windshield wiper of a car that belongs to her American teaching assistant Jacob (Anton Yelchin). This girl cuts to the chase, with endearing self-awareness. At the bottom of the letter is a PS: “Please don’t think I’m a nutcase.”
This line makes Jacob smile. “It was a good disclaimer,” he says later, when they’re on their first date, at a café. Jacob is intrigued, unafraid and respectful. There’s something about Anna that he innately trusts and so does the audience; Jones (The Tempest) is a daintier version of Julie Delpy’s character from Before Sunrise—possessing of a romantic soul, yet intellectually engaged and full of promise. She’s irresistible. But Jacob approaches with a modicum of restraint, as if he knows that this relationship could be something monumental. It is. Their attraction is so vivid and heartfelt that it shimmers off the screen in waves and reminds you of what love felt like at 22—both the marvel and the misery.
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Director Drake Doremus (Douchebag) and co-writer Ben York Jones clear out all the customary claptrap that hinder today’s movie romances: class differences, cute misunderstandings, commitment issues. The obstacle they throw in Anna and Jacob’s way is a bureaucratic one; in a haze of love, she overstays her visa. Anna is a child of some privilege, whose parents treat her as an equal, and her assumption is it can all be worked out. But immigration officials are unmoved by the cause of love and she is exiled. Jacob resists moving to London on the grounds that his fledgling furniture-making business is in Los Angeles. Their love is in the hands of lawyers.
The most treasured love stories tend to be the ones about separation – Love Story, The Way We Were, Casablanca, even The Notebook – so Like Crazy bucks no genre conventions in that regard. But by making the procurement of a visa in the post-9/11 world a problem that stretches out over seven years, the filmmakers create an unusual dynamic. On the one hand, it’s all about silly rules on a page, rules that ought to be bent – Anna is an aspiring writer, hardly a terrorist. But having the youthful belief that love makes everything right, she never considers the consequences of ignoring those rules. The movie is about the slow process of understanding that love doesn’t conquer all. That’s a hard lesson, but Doremus and his actors keep it from being a downer; they’ve created characters you feel so tenderly about you want to see them grow up, even when it hurts
With her big, soft eyes and transformative smile, Jones gives the more obviously alluring performance, but Yelchin, who most audiences might know from his role as Chekov in the Star Trek reboot, is also captivating in his own way. His raspy speaking voice is his secret weapon, sandpaper rough but somehow also soft in its invitation; you’d lean in to hear what he’s saying. And though he’s more puckish than dashing, Yelchin ranks with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in terms of young Hollywood talent.
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He plays Jacob as an old fashioned gentleman trapped inside a modernist’s body (his furniture designs are the movie’s funny little disappointment, blocky and unremarkable). So it’s a surprise that Jacob doesn’t offer to marry Anna (as her father observes, contemplating his legal bills, “If you two got married, it would save me a lot of money.”) Both resist this fix, suggesting the doubts that exist within the bubble of this idealized love. Or less charitably, that Doremus and Jones needed an excuse to prolong the narrative long enough to add the complication of new romances for them both, she with a handsome and adoring bore (Charlie Bewley), he with his assistant Sam (Jennifer Lawrence).
If that’s a slipup, the filmmakers make up for it everywhere else. There’s not an extraneous scene, and even the smallest moments — such as when Jacob goes to a London pub with Anna and stands around awkwardly — are ripe with meaning. Watching her with her friends, he sees how outside her life he is. The love they had together, a very brief interlude, exists primarily in a cloud of memory and emotion. Down with him on solid ground is Sam, sympathetic, helpful and devoted. “Do you want your jeans ironed?” she calls out cheerily. Despite how that sounds, Sam isn’t a doormat, nor is she clearly wrong for Jacob. She’d never drive him crazy with love, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Which way should he go? Like Crazy ends on a note that leaves both the characters and the audience hanging. Yet there’s a thrill in that ambivalence because it rings so true. Like Crazy is a cinematic love potion and you leave it feeling bewitched.