The Romantic Sanity of 'Like Crazy'

The Sundance favorite movingly captures the fragility of love

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Like Crazy, a touching and understated romantic drama from writer-director Drake Doremus, begins with a two-page handwritten note pinned beneath a windshield-wiper blade: an invitation for coffee from a girl (Felicity Jones) to a boy (Anton Yelchin), which concludes with the caveat, "P.S. Please don't think I'm a nutcase." She isn't, and he doesn't imagine her to be. Her name is Anna, and she is a British national and would-be writer completing a college degree in Los Angeles. His name is Jacob, and he is in the furniture-design program. Coffee evolves into dinner, which evolves into dates at the go-kart track and snuggling on the beach as the sun sets behind the Santa Monica pier. She introduces him to Scotch. He makes her a chair. Beneath the sheets, he asks, "What are we going to do after we graduate?"

The question becomes real all too quickly, as school ends and with it Anna's student visa. Just before she is scheduled to leave for England, the couple takes an overnight getaway to Catalina Island. But it turns into a too-long goodbye, clouded over by the specter of the separation to come. The next morning, Anna proposes an alternative scenario: She skip her flight and overstay her visa. Jacob is skeptical until she confronts him with an impervious argument: "We can stay in bed all summer."

But their stolen season carries a steep price. At summer's end, Anna flies home for a wedding, and when she returns to the States on a tourist visa she is detained and then turned back for her prior infraction. Lawyers are consulted; visits to London taken; plans for their future together made, and broken, and re-made. Weeks turn to months, and months to a year, then two, the emotional distance between the young lovers oscillating as clearly as the geographic. Jacob begins to move on with another woman (Jennifer Lawrence); Anna pulls him back. Perhaps they can get married. Perhaps he can move to England. Perhaps, perhaps.

Belying its title, Like Crazy is a film not about the ferocity of love, but about its fragility. Implications and complications arise between Anna and Jacob, things unsaid and things that can't be undone. Each probes the other gently but insistently for signs of betrayal or unrest: If a breakup looms, better to be the breaker than the breakee.

Doremus's direction is deft and full of delicate touches: the way Anna and Jacob are framed at first separately and then together; a shot of Anna's toes curling nervously as she talks on the phone. Though its look and texture are emphatically, almost definitionally, "indie," the film steers clear of smirky ironies and canned nostalgias. (Yes, Anna and Jacob share a somewhat overstated fondness for Paul Simon's Graceland—and in particular, the song "Crazy Love, Vol. II"—but this is a rare indulgence.)

The story is an odd amalgam of the real and invented. The director's ex-wife, who is Austrian, maintains that it is based closely on their relationship and her immigration difficulties. But the dialogue itself was largely improvised by the performers. Whatever its components, the script—credited to Doremus and Ben York Jones—has both the ring of authenticity and an enviable grace of structure, skipping lightly from moment to moment with faith that the audience will fill in the gaps.

As Anna, Jones delivers an indelibly appealing performance: smart, yearning, cursed (but not too deeply) with self-awareness. The role won her a Special Jury prize at Sundance—where Like Crazy took top honors as well—and it hints at possibilities yet to come. Yelchin, too, is excellent, if less sharply defined. His Jacob is vaguer, less moored than Anna, a tide to her moon.

Like Crazy may not rise to the level of bittersweet romances such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or Once, but it shares their air of winsome melancholy, of hopes met and unmet. It contains echoes, too, of Annie Hall and The Graduate, especially in its elegant, equivocal conclusion. Like those films, it recognizes that love is a volatile, capricious substance, for which we human beings are frail and imperfect vessels.