Since breaking out of the mumblecore movies (Hannah Takes the Stairs) in which she got her start as both an actress and a writer-director, Greta Gerwig has emerged in films like Greenberg and No Strings Attached as a fresh face among supporting casts. Tall and curvy, she’s at once beautiful and awkward, a real-world woman who’s easy to get behind—especially in the couple of plum indie leads (Damsels in Distress and now Lola Versus) that she landed this year. The character of Lola, though, poses a bit of a challenge—portraying a suddenly single 29-year-old self-involvedly stumbling through the New York dating scene without alienating the audience—that Gerwig doesn’t quite overcome.
Director Daryl Wein and his co-writer (and real-life partner) Zoe Lister-Jones have crafted a script with moments alternately exquisite and cliché, the promise of genuine emotion conveyed with restraint squandered by puzzling plot developments and familiar fallbacks. Three weeks before their wedding, Lola’s long-term boyfriend Luke (Joel Kinnaman) calls it off. In a smart move, the breakup isn’t shown, and the film moves swiftly to the fallout: Lola gorging on rice chips on her best friend’s couch. Still-single Alice (Lister-Jones) serves as both a foil for Lola’s newfound situation and comic relief, although her one liners—in a script rife with quotables—seems at times weighted more toward shock value than observational humor for both Lola and the audience.
Lola is also comforted by her best male friend Henry (the always delightful Hamish Linklater), and it feels totally natural, albeit ill-advised, when she asks him to spend the night so that she doesn’t have to sleep alone. Their romance burgeons, despite the incestuousness of rebound dating within her and Luke’s circle of mutual friends. What’s hard to swallow, though, is that she betrays him with a stranger she doesn’t even like—a turn of events that could have used more setup and explanation. This unevenness persists throughout: In the film’s emotional climax, Lola’s hysterics at a party where she learns of a secret romance known by all her friends rings true. Her subsequent binge on booze and strip clubs does not.
All of these characters, by the way, are aggressively artistic: Luke paints portraits based on celebrity sex tapes; Alice acts in a bad play called Pogrom that’s an allegory for genital mutilation; Henry’s in a rock band; and Lola is writing her Ph.D. dissertation on the use of silence in French literature and pop culture—a theme that doesn’t noticeably make it into the movie’s script. For the most part, they’re nicely cast, but Kinnaman unfortunately seems out of place. Perhaps for those who watch The Killing, his role as Stephen Holder has become too indelible—his rugged good looks and jive delivery feel airbrushed here.
Lola Versus strives, not always successfully, to strike that delicate balance between what’s sympathetic and what’s simply pathetic: It’s no fun to watch someone sulk or to listen to them complain, and on screen, where these processes can be condensed, one just wants him or her to get over it already. But Wein, Lister-Jones, Gerwig et al deserve some credit for turning the romantic comedy on its head with a love story that begins when the relationship ends.
Director: Daryl Wein
Writers: Zoe Lister-Jones & Daryl Wein
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Joel Kinnaman, Zoe Lister-Jones, Hamish Linklater, Bill Pullman, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Jay Pharoah and Debra Winger
Release Date: June 8, 2012