Friday, November 18, 2011

Like Crazy: Sweet and revealing

Like Crazy (2011) • View trailer for Like Crazy
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.18.11

Raw, painfully vulnerable intimacy has become a calling card in recent indie dramas, with 2008’s Rachel Getting Married and last year’s Blue Valentine — and its shattering portrait of Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams and a marriage in crisis — setting a very high bar.
Anna (Felicity Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin) can't get enough of each other,
as their relationship blossoms; they hunger for the intimacy of every shared
moment. The question, though, is what will happen when circumstances
interrupt this courtship at its most fragile juncture: the point when infatuation
ordinarily would transition into deep, abiding love.

Those films now are joined by Like Crazy, a poignant and richly drawn study of young love and the cruel toll extorted by unfortunate timing. Director Drake Doremus — who co-scripted this alternately charming and heartbreaking courtship saga with Ben York Jones — has a masterful eye for the little moments and small, spontaneous gestures that inform a relationship. No surprise, then, that his film took the grand jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Better still, this story is beautifully depicted by stars Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin, who wholly inhabit characters that look, sound and move like smitten couples we’ve all known in the apartment next door. Jones and Yelchin share chemistry, impeccable timing and an engaging, naturalistic closeness that transcends the artifice of acting; at times we feel like we’re eavesdropping on something intensely personal.

That said, Doremus’ pacing is slow at times, and his directorial flourishes occasionally overwhelm — and detract from — the emotions bared in this quiet, delicate little charmer. Many of Doremus’ pacing and editing touches are brilliant; others — such as his jump cuts in early scenes — are merely irritating. But he does establish an engaging narrative flow, and Felicity Jones and Yelchin ensure that we’ll be drawn into the story.

Jacob (Yelchin) and Anna (Jones) meet during a college class. He’s intrigued by the intelligent, provocatively worded essay she reads aloud; she notices his doodles of chairs, tables and other pieces of furniture. He’s a California native; she’s an exchange student from London. Drawing upon her creative strength, she “stalks” him with a lengthy letter slipped under his car’s windshield wiper.

Charmed, he calls her; they meet for coffee. Right here, the film’s core strength becomes evident: This awkward, sorta-kinda first date is punctuated by the weird non-sequiturs we all slip into such conversations, when not wanting to reveal too much of ourselves too quickly, but at the same time wanting to come across as, well, brilliant and perfect.

John Guleserian’s camerawork catches all the essential details: Anna’s shy, nervous expressions; Jacob’s somewhat more self-assured replies. (What guy wouldn’t be pleased by the attention of such an intelligent and attractive young woman?)

They easily slip into the giddy early days of a relationship: the free-spirited outings; the initial tingling frisson of those first kisses; the eventual sweet, mutual surrender late at night, as the lights go out. He makes her a chair; Jones’ squeal of delight — of total, enchanted surprise — could melt steel. She makes him a book of shared memories from their time together: tickets, receipts, photographs and other ephemera, all catalogued with her captivating, adoring prose.

This is Love writ large: infectious, overwhelming, breathtaking.

He meets her parents — Jackie and Bernard (Alex Kingston and Oliver Muirhead) — when they fly overseas for a brief visit. Mother and father recognize the glow of happiness in their only child; the next step seems inevitable.

But Anna’s student visa is scheduled to expire at the end of this academic term. She and Jacob anticipate the moment bravely; her parents point out that the separation will last only a few months. But at the last moment, Anna panics and impulsively overstays her visa. (The loudest groan that erupted in the theater, during Tuesday evening’s preview screening, was mine.)

This story is contemporary; the harsh realities of our post-9/11 world dictate what happens next. When Anna does return to England a bit later in the summer — just a quick week, to attend a wedding — she’s stopped at LAX after her return flight. There are no appeals; she’s bounced back to England, with Jacob left on the other side of all those security walls, not even granted a brief glimpse of the woman he loves.

OK, fine: not the end of the world. Although Anna has been declared persona non grata in the United States, nothing prevents Jacob from visiting her in London. But he lacks her financial resources, and besides, his new career as a furniture designer is taking off, as is her career as a junior writer at a high-tone British magazine. (Finola Hughes plays the editor who mentors Anna: a brief but equally vital performance.)

Time passes; life ... intrudes. Jacob does make a trip overseas, but it feels artificial, like he and Anna are simply “vacationing” their relationship. But they also can’t let go. They’re caught between hard choices and constant bad timing: ships that repeatedly pass in the night, despite gallant attempts by one or both to correct course.

We sense a nascent spark between Anna and Simon (Charlie Bewley), a neighbor in an adjoining flat. Jacob’s fledgling business expands enough to warrant the arrival of a new employee, Sam (Jennifer Lawrence). Does Jacob abandon the dream first? Does Anna? Or do they both simply contemplate substitute relationships?

As the Stephen Sills song reminds us, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Or, more appropriate to this film — and Jacob and Anna’s shared devotion to Paul Simon’s work — this line, from “Graceland”: “She comes back to tell me she’s gone ... as if I didn’t know that, as if I didn’t know my own bed.”

Doremus’ enchanting, effervescent first act segues into the aching frustration of the saga’s second and third acts. I’m not sure one can claim to “enjoy” what follows, although the film becomes, if anything, even more persuasively credible, the dialogue that much more authentic. Those who’ve navigated such tempestuous waters recognize the implacable chemical reaction here: Relationships need time to gel, and if the process is interrupted at a critical stage ... well, momentum can be difficult to regain.

The on again/off again nature of Jacob and Anna’s liaison inevitably produces collateral damage. Lawrence — so fine in last year’s Winter’s Bone, and soon to star in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games — is achingly vulnerable as Sam. She knows that she’s a rebound, but tries, repeatedly, to make the most of it. Can second choice ever be good enough?

Bewley isn’t quite as successful as Simon, whose character is revealed less by thespic talent and more by Doremus’ creative montages in the flat he eventually shares with Anna. As a result, Simon feels more like an afterthought, his personality lacking the depth that emerges in Anna and Jacob, thanks to the many, many hours of rehearsals and free-associating bonding that Doremus orchestrated with his two stars, before rolling the film.

Kingston and Muirhead are note-perfect as Anna’s parents; watch their expressions as Jackie and Bernard clock their daughter’s behavior with Simon, as compared to how she acts around Jacob. Kingston, in particular, has a marvelous, silent scene as mother stares at daughter, and we can hear the unspoken words: “Oh, darling, what a mess you’ve made of things...”

Like Crazy is laden with such deeply intimate moments. Most come from the rich performances; others are conveyed through Doremus’ creative montages and Jonathan Alberts’ inventive editing. I’m particularly impressed by an airport farewell, as Anna forlornly watches Jacob ride an escalator until he’s out of sight — the best bit is what immediately follows — and by the subway ride Anna takes at one point, first staring at Jacob, smiling at her from the seat across the aisle ... and then, hours later, staring at an empty seat.

Dustin O’Halloran’s spare, evocative, piano-based score is the final graceful touch: the perfect complement to the highs and lows of this tender, fragile love affair. You can’t help being charmed.

And crushed, by turns.

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