October 6-20 marks the 47th Annual Chicago International Film Festival. I’ve never done this festival before and decided to give it a whirl this year. Film festivals always sound better in my head than they actually are. I was reminded of this as I stood in line for Like Crazy, surrounded by college-aged hipster douchebag film students. Over the next couple weeks I’ll be posting reviews from the films I’m seeing. Unless I’m in jail for stabbing a college-aged hipster douchebag film student to death with my pencil.
Like Crazy was a big hit at Sundance and I can see why. It’s a charming, small film that’s a bit cute and quirky without descending into twee-ness (despite the rather poor trailer’s tendency toward the twee). The natural comparison here is (500) Days of Summer, but I found Like Crazy to be a lot less hipstery. Like Crazy is the story of Jacob and Anna, a couple of selfish assholes who ruin the lives of everyone around them. It’s a bittersweet love story.
Writer/director Drake Doremus (Douchebag) pulls very good performances from a young cast headed by Anton Yelchin (Fright Night, Charlie Bartlett) and English actress Felicity Jones (The Tempest). He shoots the movie using a lot of hand-held cameras and often frames shots from around corners and through doorways, giving the sense that we’re peeping into real lives, not watching a dramatization. This is helped further along by the improvisational nature of his script, which Yelchin described as a “fifty page outline of mostly back story and character descriptions”. Actors were given character objectives and then they ran through the scene, fleshing out dialogue through rehearsals and trial and error. It’s quite impressive when you consider that at just 30, Charlie Bewley (The Twilight Saga) is the oldest non-parent-playing member of the cast. You get the best sense of how this process pays off in Jacob and Anna’s first date. Conversation is stilted, awkward and fails often. They both clearly like each other and are trying desperately hard to look cool without looking cool.
Unfortunately, Jacob and Anna are selfish assholes. I know I’m supposed to be sympathetic to their plight but they’re such dunderheaded children it’s hard for me to muster up a lot of feeling in that vein. They meet in their final year of college and fall in love, having a charming idyllic romance in LA. Upon graduation, Anna is supposed to return to her native UK and apply for a work visa in order to come back to Jacob, who is setting up shop as a designer of astoundingly uncomfortable-looking chairs. Instead of going home, as her mother (Alex Kingston, Dr. Who) dutifully reminds her, Anna elects to overstay her visa. Her penalty is harsh—once she’s gone back to the UK she is banned from returning to the US. For 3-4 years this stymies Jacob and Anna. They try dating other people—Jacob falls in with his assistant, Sam (Jennifer Lawrence), and Anna hooks up with a neighbor (Bewley).
Here’s why I can’t sympathize with Jacob and Anna. At every turn they make selfish decisions. Had Anna just gone home in the first place, she would have returned to the US with zero problems after three months and she and Jacob live happily ever after. But since she can’t go back, she begins a life in London at a magazine where she advances very (unrealistically) quickly. Jacob’s uncomfortable chair business takes off in LA and in a couple scenes we see that Sam is a better fit for the new Jacob, rather than his English quasi-ex whom he clings to. And I get it—this is what we do. We idealize our first real love and cling too hard to something that is no longer good for us. One of my favorite life mottos is that we put up with stuff in our first relationship that we will never tolerate again because we learn what’s good for us and what isn’t. Jacob and Anna could have been great together but they missed their moment. Because they’re selfish assholes.
As their separation grinds on over the years and their lives become more entrenched in their respective corners of the globe—we see Jacob and Anna yo-yo between the patient lovers they keep abandoning and each other. (Question: When Anna first couldn’t return to the US, why didn’t Jacob pack up and head to London? He’d only just started out in LA—at that point it would’ve been comparatively easy to relocate to London. See? Selfish assholes.) In a half-funny, half-heartbreaking scene, Anna’s side-piece, Simon (Bewley), proposes despite the fact that she’s already married Jacob in an attempt to circumvent her visa ban (it didn’t work). It’s a mortifying scene because we know Anna is a selfish asshole who has let Simon think he has a chance of winning her when really, she’ll go back to Jacob as soon as she can.
Which she does. In my favorite scene in the movie, Anna is finally cleared to return to the US (after about 4 years, by my estimation). She leaves her cushy post as a junior editor at a hip magazine to start over in LA with Jacob, at long last. The look on Anna’s face when she walks into Jacob’s live/work loft is hilarious. She hates it and she can barely conceal her disdain. Sam, Jacob’s now-crushed former sweetheart/assistant, fit so much better into his life than Anna ever will, at this point. Just like Simon, a stylish and upwardly-mobile financier of the Sloane-y set, is so much better for Anna. However, Jacob and Anna have put each other, and everyone around them, through hell in order to be together. Anna’s parents have spent a fortune on lawyers and legal fees in order to de-tangle her visa situation. Four years down the line, they’ve simply invested too much—clung too hard—and they have to be together to justify all the drama. Yet when they hop into the shower together you can see it—the time, the stress, the divergent lives have taken their toll. That once-beautiful love has been destroyed and there’s nothing left but obligation.
And now for a word on the cast. Lawrence is as good as she ever is—her role isn’t big and she doesn’t say much but when her heart breaks you hurt for her. I’ve never seen Bewley in anything other than the Twilight movies so I was pleasantly surprised by how good he is. And dear god, he’s hot. But the focus is on Yelchin and Jones, who was an It Girl at Sundance this year. Yelchin has been doing good work in indie films for years and has tried a couple forays into the mainstream (most notable Terminator: Salvation and Fright Night) that haven’t quite panned out yet. He’s fantastic in Like Crazy and is beginning to look like a grown up man. In person, he’s taller than I expected, less hipstery, and is quite charming. He and Doremus were entertaining to watch together.
Jones is equally good and while I thought Elizabeth Olsen’s performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene was a bit better than Jones’s work here, I don’t want to detract from how imminently watchable Jones is. She is so, so gorgeous and bears a resemblance to Jennifer Connelly. In person she is lovely and polite. I found her to be friendly but disappointingly vague. She had little discernable personality. I couldn’t tell if she was just nervous, and so on guard, or if there’s really no “there” there, but I walked away thinking I’d definitely see her in another movie, but I have little interest in paying attention to her off the screen. (Comparetively, Lizzie Olsen, while guarded, was sassy and funny and surprisingly well-spoken when I met her last month.) Still, Jones is a natural in front of the camera and will be in demand for the next couple of years at least.