Drake Doremus’s Like Crazy is an art-house romance about the pain and challenges of a long-distance relationship, and watching the film is itself a grueling exercise in yearning. You spend the entirety of the running time straining to care for the central couple, who meet and fall for each other while attending college in Los Angeles, then see their love and transatlantic flights ping-pong in tandem, as one remains in the States while the other is forced, due to a student visa violation, to return home to the U.K. There’s tension established with the young lovers’ conflict of circumstance, but the weight of their connection requires a wealth of viewer faith that’s stretched to irredeemable limits. Never do you feel a strong attachment to, or sympathy for, this pair, as their chemistry is nonexistent and only one of them seems at all invested, or even interested, in their bond. This is a movie whose emotional power is confined, almost completely, to a single performance—that of Sundance breakout Felicity Jones, whose budding British journalist, Anna, is most certainly the duo’s better half.
Short, yet commanding, Jones begins establishing layers of character the moment she appears on screen, as Anna reads a media-world essay to her peers and coolly validates her skill and passion as a culture-savvy writer. With a thick accent, an innate intelligence, and an acquired bounty of American spunk, Jones independently pulls you into the scene, as she will many others: Like Crazy shines when Anna shines, swoons when Anna swoons, and aches when Anna aches. One of the many small marvels of Jones’s very strong turn comes in the thick of her character’s volatile love story, in a barroom scene after one of multiple breakups, where Anna offers a half-drunken reaction of feigned interest to a potential hookup, her eyes gazing at something from which her mind couldn’t be further. Strikingly naturalistic, it’s a tiny flash of a moment that elicits a fierce flash of empathetic recognition. But outside of Jones’s work, the film usually feels like it’s soullessly connecting dots, a far cry from the Before Sunrise-style substance its Yank-meets-Euro chattiness might suggest.
The movie’s greatest detriment and most vexing mystery is easily the performance from Anton Yelchin, who approaches the role of Jacob, Anna’s object of hopeless devotion, as if love truly were a drug, one that renders men catatonic. Devoid of charm and bringing only baggy-eyed blankness, the normally-persuasive Yelchin fares terribly with Doremus’s improvisational approach, which the director apparently wanted to complement with a brooding, no-frills, boho beau whose shell-like disposition is at baffling odds with Anna’s life zest (indeed, the couple may fancy the Paul Simon songs that pepper the soundtrack, but the tune most often heard in your head is “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”). A furniture maker whose hairline recedes right along with his tolerability, Jacob beds his inexplicably smitten co-worker (Jennifer Lawrence) when things with Anna are on the rocks, a situation that puts Yelchin opposite another Sundance belle who acts him under the table. Things get especially bad during scenes with Anna’s parents (Alex Kingston and Oliver Muirhead), two lively Brits who jovially talk about booze when they’re not drinking it, and who warmly and effortlessly emote while Jacob has just nods and shrugs to share.
The assumption is that the drastically minimalistic, bemused heartbreaker bit is an offshoot of the movie’s indie-vérité style, which is actually rather accomplished despite the prevalence of young-minds-open clichés (poetry, sketch pads, and playlists with old and esoteric music are all on the menu). Without laying it on heavy, Doremus lets natural light pour into his modestly handsome frames, and utilizes Dustin O’Halloran’s mild piano-key score while catching his couple in handheld shots that recall the urban strolls of Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo, or Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. The filmmaker isn’t above gimmicky tricks of chronological illustration (time-lapse photography, a widescreen flipbook of daily-grind stills), but he uses a largely breezy technique in his attempt to tell a modern, conceptually realistic tale of relationship fluidity. His problems are a vapid leading man and two ill-matched characters who seem to be not just in different movies—or on different coasts—but on different planets, a disconnect that virally harms the proceedings and leaves behind a loveless love story. In addition to a silver bracelet that reads “Patience,” one of the film’s memento motifs is a handmade chair that Jacob gives to Anna, its underside scrawled with the film’s title. A symbol of romantic and sexual longing that makes several pivotal appearances, it’s a sort of reconstituted Rosebud for this contemporary angstfest, and its unadorned, Stickley-like sturdiness suggests it’s a representation of the relationship’s strength. In the end, though, it simply underscores how so much of this curiously hyped movie is wooden.