Friday, December 9, 2011

Like Crazy

A connect-the-dots love story, Like Crazy works as much because of what it leaves out as because of what it includes.

Director Drake Doremus, his co-writer Ben York Jones, and editor Jonathan Alberts often start or end a scene in the midst of an action or skip months at a time in the otherwise linear timeline, so we have to keep figuring out what we just missed. That helps maintain interest in what might otherwise have felt like a pretty standard story about a first love that burns alternately hot and cold but just won’t fizzle out.

That elliptical structure also noodges us into searching the beautiful young faces of the lovers, Anna (Felicity Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin), whom we peer at almost as intently as they gaze at each other. These two do an awful lot of soulful staring—at one other when they’re together and into the middle distance when they’re apart—but it almost never feels tiresome or self-indulgent, since we’re either trying to catch up with or immersed in the emotions they’re cycling through.

Felicity Jones is particularly compelling. That’s partly because of the actress’ Streep-like sensitivity, which allows her to transmit subtle or simultaneous emotions with the precision of a fiber optic cable, but it probably doesn’t hurt that her character is less sullen and conflicted than Yelchin’s.

One member of a couple is almost always more besotted than the other. In this case it’s Anna, an emotionally open and articulate English beauty, who comes on hard to Jacob one day after class (they’re college students). Jacob is more self-protective than Anna, perhaps because he’s less mature (Yelchin doesn't look as if he’s finished filling out yet; even his facial hair seems a bit tentative). But if he starts out hesitant, he warms up fast.

Their first date sets the tone for a relationship in which the two keep growing close, getting separated by outside forces (mostly U.S. immigration, since Anna gets on the wrong side of the Department of Homeland Security when she overstays her student visa), re-establishing their distance, and then getting back together to go through the same cycle again, almost always at Anna’s instigation.

Anna and Jacob’s messy, ultimately inconclusive push-pull is to the smooth three-part arc of most movie romances what the wobbly ride of a kid on her first solo bike ride is to a freight train chugging down a well-worn set of rails. Doremus and Jones gave the actors only a 50-page outline and asked them to improvise all of their dialogue and much of the action, which probably helped keep things fresh, and cinematographer John Guleserian shot the whole thing with the video function of a Canon EOS 7D still camera. The camera’s relatively small size and weight made it easy for Guleserian to follow the actors’ lead, staying close without being too intrusive.

But that’s not to say that Like Crazy is interested in kitchen-sink realism. Its expressively gorgeous cinematography, which starts out all warm colors, soft focus, and bright light as the kids do their courting and shifts to harsher blue as they grow apart, effectively amplifies the pair’s emotions. So does the way the film plays with time, not just by shifting between emotional epiphanies rather than plot points but also in sequences like a parting in the London airport, which neatly dramatizes the way time freezes for Anna when Jacob is gone. After watching him glide up an escalator and out of sight on his way back home, she stays in the same spot for what appears to be days, standing stock still as the other people in the airport stream around her in speeded-up stop motion. Then Jacob reappears, descending back down the escalator and into her arms.

For all the care taken in laying its groundwork Like Crazy leaves plenty of room for your own thoughts and feelings to roam. I filled in the ellipses that skip over chunks of plot with my own memories of the awkward glories of first love. And as the end credits rolled, after Anna and Jacob had reunited once again, trying and failing (could it be for good this time?) to penetrate the emotional armor that had grown thicker with every parting, I found myself questioning the whole concept. Is our first true love the purest romance we’ll ever know, or is it just another adolescent rite of passage? Do we love more truly and deeply as we gain self-knowledge and self-confidence, or is there something about the emotional lability and malleability of youth that makes it harder to lower our defenses and truly meld with someone else as we get older and leave more loves behind?

Like Crazy doesn’t try to answer that question. It does something better, posing it for us to decide for ourselves.

Written for TimeOff

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