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bechdel taser: it’s called like crazy, but this is one romance that won’t send you up the walls

I love Hollywood films. I don’t love Hollywood romances. At some point, the tale of love became subject not only to an inevitable conclusion, but the journey stopped veering away from one strict path. It’s not knowing that you’re going to land in New York, it’s knowing that you’ll stop in Thailand, Abu Dhabi and Houston along the way*, that all of your flights will be uncomfortable, and that your stewardesses will have interchangeably never-ending legs barely hidden by constricting pencil skirts.

In other genres of Hollywood entertainment, the self-referential stylings of our pop-cultural epoch lend themselves to winking trope-nods and knowing false candor, and lead me to overuse the hyphen. In tales of love, studio films have an unerring underestimation of their audience. The saccharine and predictable results have barely progressed past the mandated romances in the Hays Code films of the 40s and 50s. Aside from being shit-dull, this ensures women have a retroactively underdetermined sense of self in films where their sole ambition is man-acquisition.

Like Crazy is not a Hollywood film. Like Crazy is about love. You probably know this. The film’s poster has a flowing tagline

I want you
I need you
I love you
I miss you
Like Crazy

And features Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin, our hetero-love birds, in dusk’s magic hour. The instantly nostalgic, instagrammed time of day that makes everyone seem more delicious.

But Like Crazy is not about love in the way that Sleepless in Seattle is about love. There you have the precocious children, meddling best friends and strangely accepting inferior paramours that ensure the formula of a Hollywood romance.

Like Crazy is the first film about love I’ve seen in a while that had me rooting for the union of the protagonists. I wondered if it was the hand-held camera or non-emotionally manipulative soundtrack lending the air of something different – something more authentic. But then, I hate ‘authentic’ veneers in film. If life had editing software, I’d use it to create daily highlight reels. What Like Crazy has is a simple relation to reality that Hollywood’s romances seem to have overlooked.

They start with a coffee.

It should be so insignificant to see a relationship start the way relationships tend to start, but the idea that it wasn’t years of bickering, a chance stumbling encounter or a wager that led to their union is somehow innovative.

Even though Like Crazy’s Bechdel Pass is predicated on one or two peripheral scenes, its closer bearing to daily life than Hollywood romance means that the otherwise schmaltzy union does the ladies a better service than we might be accustomed to.

In the last column, I bemoaned the trend of successful female characters being bad at what they do. The career trajectory of Felicity Jones’s Anna will make prospective writers writhe, but a speech she offers at the film’s commencement shows she is great at what she does – and not in the heaven-sent pleasure palace of prestigious job security suggested by How to Lose a Job in Ten Days or Confessions of a Shopoholic. There are also witty and erudite women around her who show strength that stands on its own. Strength not vindicated by cutting down men or women. Jennifer Lawrence’s Samantha, the ‘other woman’, is not positioned as a villain as an easy means of having the audience root more for Anna.

However, there is a problem. The film’s entire conflict centres on the lovers’ forced geographical separation. Anna, after violating her study visa, is not allowed back into the United States, where she met Jacob (Anton Yelchin). They spend years trying to get her back in, but only once is it suggested he move to London, and this is shrugrumbled** off. Prior to meeting him, she had been in love with California, but his suggestion that building furniture in London would be hard seems laughable, given Anna is a writer and editor. While moving might have seemed great straight out of university, the success she has had since makes it unlikely she would stay so anxious to move over the course of the film’s years. This is pushed to the side throughout Like Crazy for the sake of its ending. The director seems to beg us not to notice so he might maintain dramatic tension. The result is that while Anna is given more autonomy than the heroines of our rom-coms, her sense of self seems more entangled in her lover than his does in her.

This is reflected in the relationships developing outside the core romance. Jacob’s with Samantha seems genuine enough that it gives him some turmoil. Though we know little about Samantha, she is an embodied character with positive personality traits. On the other hand, Anna’s alternative paramour Simon (Charlie Bewley), is farcical. Their relationship is not fulfilling, which rather than some presentation of feminine romanticism, is why she remains attached to Jacob despite her promotions and opportunities.

But the film suggests relationships are complex, which requires both women and men to be complex. This makes it a less cringing experience than many contemporary romance films. The idea of time and circumstance changing people is articulately explored in Like Crazy. Even Anna’s unfulfilling relationship experience is played as something which has developed her to a point where she is altered, and so too is the way she relates to Jacob. To counteract the low lady level of the also-complex Weekend, you could see the two as a double.

* Is that actually a thing that would happen? This cultural commentator is far too broke to venture further afield than rural Victoria, but surely talk of intercontinental flights will lend this a greater air of universality.

** Neologistic portmanteau of shrugged and grumbled. I am so thrilled with it I refuse to google-and-see whether I am not the first to make it happen.

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