Like Crazy the Grand Jury Prize winner at 2011’s Sundance Film Festival is an actor’s piece. Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin, who play the couple Anna and Jacob, improvise all of their dialogue and do a pretty good job with inhabiting it. It’s more than a little sappy, but it’s also the type of “butterflies in the stomach” language and sentiments that we have all thought in before, and the film’s tendency toward happy glimpses of their life and its great use of music (which includes a feathery piano score and artists from Paul Simon to M83) show that those moments of being swept off your feet is exactly what Like Crazy is going for. On the other hand, when things get ugly between the couple, the dialogue goes where improvisational dialogue often does, as the couple repeat themselves or paraphrase the other’s statement back to them as a question. It’s a symptom that hits a lot of us pretty hard, but it makes for poor storytelling, particularly when the moments are so anomalous that we expect it to be quickly brushed off. To get away with these tropes in the name of realism, a film must invest heavily in its characters. This behavior has to be consistent with what we know of them and tell us more about them. And that, unfortunately, is where Like Crazy begins to fall apart.
Anna is a British student studying in Los Angeles, and when she falls in love with Jacob, she overstays her Visa to be with him. As a result, she is banned from the country, putting an enormous strain on their relationship that relies heavily on Jacob taking time off from his successful business. The two often go months without seeing each other and have spells with other people in the process. Like Crazy has a nasty habit of relegating all of these character-driven moments to montage, however. The initial courtship takes place mostly in stylized, short looks of the two on the beach or on amusement park rides, and of the numerous spells the couple have apart, specifically after their first departure and after marriage while waiting to appeal Anna’s visa ban, we barely see Anna and Jacob at all. It is as if this couple has no life outside the other. That’s possible; their relationship is meaningful enough for them to keep even with a 12 hour plane ride separating them. But they still have to go months without one another, and it’s those months that could best tell us who Anna and Jacob really are. We barely got to see their fledgling relationship, and we don’t even get to see them apart. Who are these people?
We know Anna is a writer because she tells us and reads something in the first scene. We know Jacob is a designer because he tells us, and in one scene, he even seems to be working. But mostly, we have no idea who they are. To describe them with adjectives is a difficult task. In fact, it’s almost easier to do this with Anna’s parents or each character’s short-term partner—each of whom is in about 3 scenes—than it is with Anna and Jacob, a telltale sign of bad characterizations. We have no reason to care about this relationship, we have no idea why they hit it off so easily, and we have no idea how hard it is for them to not be together. The closest we get to that is a few “I miss you” text messages. Who are these people? I suppose they’re optimistic, in love, and Paul Simon fans. So basically, they are young.
What Like Crazy does do very well is create mood. The depressed colors and great use of music provide exactly the wistful melancholy that the film needs, and even the shaky camera, although often times overdone, helps capture the endless nervousness of the characters. At the same time, Drake Doremus’ compositions are quite flat, and his love for the jump cut feels like an empty indulgence designed to show off his love for the French New Wave more than anything else. But for the most part, Doremus demonstrates an impressive control that signifies a talent worth watching.
Still, it’s hard to forgive storytelling this poor, in which everything revealing takes place in as short a time as possible and what we are left with gives stereotypical gender roles, in which she really needs him and is a bit crazy in going through his phone and her a lot but can’t be patient. We have seen this story a hundred times, and even with its charming aesthetic, it reeks of dishonesty that poor characterizations only make more apparent. Audiences deserve better than this, and hapless flourishes designed to make Like Crazy look more cinematic may hide that, but they won’t change it.