Movies are often about falling in love and sometimes falling out of love, but the best for my money are about falling in and out of love in a way you'd need a higher order of physics to graph. That higher physicist could start with Drake Doremus' drama Like Crazy, which evokes as well as any film I've seen the now loopy, now jagged flow from infatuation to intoxication to addiction to withdrawal to re-addiction. It's not an especially deep or psychological movie. It's just crazy painful.
Jacob, played by Anton Yelchin, is American; Anna, played by Felicity Jones, is British. They're in the same L.A. college, the same media-studies class. After the last session, she leaves a long note for him under his windshield that says, "Please don't think I'm a nutcase, but ..." He comes to see her; they look at each other, and they know. She has big eyes and big English teeth that give her an appealing forwardness. He has curly hair and tender skin. They're both so young, so giddy, so undefended. The hand-held camera gets all giddy, too. It moves in close, scanning one upturned face and then the other.
Doremus pulls you in deep. The last time I felt so immersed in a young-love story was at Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise. But that was a meeting of minds, whereas Like Crazy happens at a pre-verbal level. At one point, snapshots of the couple sleeping and smooching and frolicking by the beach take the place of scenes, but it doesn't feel like one of those bland montages that's just there to break up the dialogue. The images feel as if they're being spit out of a photo booth in our collective unconscious.
Something comes between them, of course, but the impediments aren't absurdly easy to overcome, as in most rom-coms. Nor are they soaked in fatalism, as in doomed-lover psychodramas like last year's Blue Valentine. After they get together, Jacob and Anna can't tear themselves away from each other, so she impulsively overstays her visa and then, after a trip home, can't get back into the U.S.
And so begins the grueling, long last two-thirds of Like Crazy, in which they're not quite together, yet by no means apart. He's building a furniture-design career in Venice Beach while she's making waves writing for a London-based magazine. There are other lovers in the picture. Jacob has a relationship with his assistant, played by Jennifer Lawrence. But when he phones Anna in London, it's hard for them both to stay cheerfully impersonal — and when he agrees to come see her on the spur of the moment, her laugh spills over into a sob.
That's it right there, the tone of Like Crazy. Jones and Yelchin have the rawness, the spontaneity of little kids. She's like a 12-year-old girl playing at being a sophisticate, and when he grows facial hair, it's like a 14-year-old's first sad beard. Neither can bear the weight of their first love — but who can, really?
Like Crazy has a lively syntax and could, in an ungrateful mood, be described as slick. But Doremus gets the tempos right. The movie jumps when it needs to and stops for long, awkward, agonizing scenes when it must. The question hangs: Is this true love? Or a crazy infatuation prolonged by bizarre circumstances? Have Jacob and Anna even gotten past the stage of projecting their true-love fantasies onto each other?
I don't think they know. I don't think the director knows. It's the ambiguity that makes Like Crazy so compelling and, in its madcap way, so sane.
Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.