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October 31, 2011

Boy meets girl meets customs officials

[img id="88929" align="left"/] The story is not a new one. Girl meets boy, boy is enamored with girl, both pass a few months in perfect bliss, then reality interrupts the blooming romance with impeccably bad timing. In the opening shot of Like Crazy, when Anna (Felicity Jones) slowly recites a poem to a class that is half-asleep, save for Jacob (Anton Yelchin), who is clearly smitten, we know immediately how matters will proceed. It’s no surprise when Anna later tucks a pink Post-it note beneath Jacob’s windshield wiper, with a scribbled number and the words “please don’t think I’m a nutcase.”

He doesn’t. The two share stares and small talk over coffee. Anna is a headstrong exchange student from England, residing in L.A. on a temporary visa. Jacob is a shy, jittery furniture designer, his home a one-room studio above his dusty wooden workshop. As spring begins, so does their Hallmark-style courtship: walks and play fights on the beach, spontaneous go-kart races, hands held on every sunbathed street in the city. But summer, as it tends to do, comes after spring, and Anna must leave to avoid overstaying her visa. The morning of her flight, as the two lie in bed together, she refuses to stray from Jacob’s side. He nods his hesitant approval. Snuggles and smiles ensue.

Their decision backfires when Anna leaves for a week in the fall and, upon her return, is promptly rejected by customs officials. She is forced on a flight back to England, and the couple is hurled into a long-distance relationship with no apparent solution.

And so Like Crazy, a peculiar film somewhere between (500) Days of Summer and Blue Valentine, begins its tale of two ordinary students tormented by the ocean between them. This is no sugar-sweet, treacly rom-com; it’s a gritty, hyper-realistic, and sometimes plain depiction of a decaying love. Director Drake Doremus has directed three features and, at 27, is the youngest fellow ever accepted into the American Film Institute. His latest work’s failure to move or affect, then, is surprising but perfectly explainable.

The most obvious reason is the script—or, rather, the lack thereof. Doremus sketched out a 50-page plot outline, and the cast constructed every other detail and dialogue of the film from scratch. Improvisation has been implemented in a whole horde of hits, most recently in last year’s Blue Valentine. There, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams kindled enough chemistry to justify the director’s gamble. Here, we witness the risk of such methods: They can produce incredibly boring results. There is small talk but no substance. There is emotion but no consistent expression of it. With Jacob and Anna, we get two supposedly passionate lovers who just don’t seem to care that much.

This isn’t to rag on the actors, who brim with promise and potential. Yelchin has solidified his indie-star status: All curly hair and big eyes, he compels you not with machismo or smooth charm but with an off-kilter innocence and goofy charisma. Jones exudes an easy, youthful energy. But their ad-libbed lines ring hollow. It’s tough to conjure the melancholy of a long-distance relationship off-the-cuff and without direction.

What truly kills the film is an implausibility that annihilates any attempt at a realistic depiction of a relationship. For one, the set-up simply isn’t up to snuff. Five minutes in, the two are in the throes of an infatuation that is cute to watch but cloying and confusing to process. The act of falling in love—of establishing a deep and understood affection—is one that’s thinly realized and never fully articulated, so all the heartbreak that follows seems extreme and artificial.

Even if we assume a bond forged in such sudden passion, Jacob and Anna’s efforts to sustain it seem curiously timid. They are resigned to half-assed texting and monthly phone calls. Video chats are nowhere to be found. Visits are rare. They pass most of their time trying to forget or ignore one another. We are forced to believe that these boring people actually love each other, but they seem much more interested in moving on with their boring lives.

Finally, there’s the visa issue. A forced and charmless contrivance, its function as a plot device to cook up conflict is completely transparent. At best, the two are naïve for intentionally ignoring its expiration. At worst, they’re just plain stupid.

Doremus, for his part, keeps the camera close to the face, the lens tightly trained on his fresh-faced lovers. Colors are faded, and the editing is simple and precise. Dialogue is muted, natural, and always very colloquial. Doremus is an auteur of the moment, at his best when capturing a single image:  The couple silently listening to the restrained melodies of Graceland, the symbolic tying of a beaded bracelet spelling out “patience,” a montage of Jacob and Anna splayed across the bed all summer, the screen all sheets and skin and sunlight. These moments lend life to an otherwise dull series of events.

Moments, however, need to matter. The final image is supposed to be one of revelation: Anna and Jacob are together, the souls of their characters exposed in a bittersweet reunion. Unfortunately, there’s still not much to see.

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