Watching Like Crazy was a frustrating experience for me. The whole time I was watching the film, I felt as if I should have been enjoying it much more than I actually was. Visually, the film is both intimate and gorgeous, kind of like watching a home movie if your dad was a virtuoso filmmaker. The performances are all strong, from top to bottom. But despite all of the obvious talent on the screen, I just couldn’t find myself connecting to the story or the characters as they were crafted. Maybe I’m not much of a romantic, but I found the relationship woes of the main characters Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones) to be less than compelling. In fact, they were pretty frustrating to get through. Who were these kids and why should I care that they treat their personal lives like the most important things in the world?
We’re not so much introduced to Jacob and Anna as we watch as they’re introduced to each other. The film opens with their meeting in a college course in which Anna is a student and Jacob a teacher’s aid, followed by Anna’s bold decision to leave a note declaring her infatuation under Jacob’s windshield wiper, and the stilted conversation and stolen glances of their first date. The getting-to-know-you sequence is cute, but it doesn’t last long. Soon we’re informed through montage (we’re informed of a lot of things through montage in this film) that the two kids are now very much in love; and then the drama starts.
The conflict is that Jacob and Anna met while Anna is a student in the United States, though originally she’s from England. Anna decides to stay in the States for the summer in order to be with Jacob (even though her student visa has expired), and she ends up getting in some hot water with immigration and they revoke all of her coming-to-America privileges. Being oceans and continents apart is bad for young love, so the newly-inseparable duo is then faced with the task of figuring out how to live without one another.
Enter an endless back and forth in which Anna and Jacob go from deciding to try the long distance thing, to deciding that being apart is too painful, to going back to trying the long distance thing, and so on and so forth. It adds up to a lot of montages. This is where my frustrations crept in. Jacob and Anna are wishy-washy, never picking an approach and sticking to it. For much of the film’s runtime, I was screaming that they should just get married if they were so fated to be together.
Finally, after a few too many rounds of back and forth, they do decide to go that route; but that doesn’t end up working out for them either. Paperwork or some such made their marriage a moot point. At that point, I was screaming that Jacob should just move to England if they really were kismet, but the movie poo-poos that idea as well. Something about him having a booming business making ugly chairs back home making it an impossibility. I guess nobody buys ugly chairs in England.
By the time I had been through the will they/won’t they rollercoaster a few times, I was begging for them to just make a decision about their relationship and stick to it. But I guess that wasn’t the point of the movie, and it certainly wasn’t the reaction I was supposed to have to all of their romantic woes. I was supposed to be enthralled by the tragedy of their doomed love, I was supposed to cry alongside them because they couldn’t live apart, but weren’t allowed to be together. That didn’t work out. Seeing as their problems were all started by a stupid and selfish decision Anna made to overstay her visa, I found it hard to find empathy. And when the two protagonists start to take up other relationships with perfectly nice people, who they repeatedly screw over and emotionally destroy due to their own self-destructive obsessions with “first love,” I started to really find myself disliking the characters I was supposed to be rooting for. They seemed to be better people when they were apart, less whiny and naval-gazing, and every time one of them would find some life momentum derailed by the other party contacting them again, I would groan in frustration. I made a lot of noises during this movie.
My frustration came because, even though the repetitive, melodramatic nature of the story was annoying, this movie had style to spare and really looked like something I should have been enjoying. The photography was gorgeous. The montage sequences were kinetic and fun to watch; they were integral to the art of the film and not just shortcut storytelling copouts. There is one in particular where we get a series of still photos of the couple in bed, in different positions and wearing different sleepwear to denote the passing of time, that really worked for me. It was clever and fun. And blocking is used exceptionally well here. A lot is conveyed to us by where people are standing, how much space is between them, who is present in a room and who isn’t. The timeline makes big jumps without warning the audience, but I was never confused as to what the status of people’s relationships were at any given moment due to the attention to detail.
And the performances really are just killer. Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin make a couple of ego-maniacal brats as likable as I imagine is possible. There’s a lot of emotion on display, probably too much, but the actors always kept me feeling just enough empathy not to tune out. Jones won the Best Actress prize at Sundance for her work here, and it may have come down to what an exceptionally good drunk she plays. Yelchin really impressed me in a scene where he’s at a club with his new girlfriend Samantha (Jennifer Lawrence), but keeps getting interrupted by texts from Anna. He’s got about a million different emotions running through his head and he somehow conveys them all silently.
Lawrence and Charlie Bewley get pretty thankless roles as the other romantic possibilities who always take a backseat, but I enjoyed both of their small contributions as well. Lawrence brings a naiveté and vulnerability to her character that makes you root for her more than perhaps anybody else in the movie. And Bewley is great in a scene where his character is making a very ill-conceived proposal to Anna and her parents. He had my audience squirming and squealing in delight at the awkward tension. Anna’s parents are also great, for that matter. They’re a charming, light-hearted couple played by Alex Kingston and Oliver Muirhead. Actually, I kind of wish this movie was about their easy romance instead of the kids’ frustrating courtship. Then I wouldn’t have had to spend so much time gritting my teeth.
The Upside: Fans of independent filmmaking will want to check this one out for the grounded, realistic performances and the beauty of the film’s crafting.
The Downside: Those not quite in that period of their life where they are enamored with and inspired by young love could find the romantic travails of these kids pretty tedious to suffer through.
On the Side: According to director Drake Doremus, nearly all of the dialogue in this film is improvised. Instead of a traditional script, the actors were given breakdowns of “scene objectives” and what the emotional states of their characters were in specific situations – all the stuff a regular script leaves out.