There's a lot about Lola Versus that feels familiar, but the propulsion that escalates the film out of the low orbit of angst-riddled 20-something indie comedies is Greta Gerwig. The young actress, who began her career in Mumblecore before shifting into supporting roles in mainstream productions (she was, for example, just about the only memorable element in the Arthur remake), has finally been given the opportunity to carry a movie being distributed into theaters outside the art house circuit. Somehow, however, carry doesn't do Gerwig's efforts justice. On the surface, there's nothing remarkable about Lola Versus except for bursts of emotional honesty, but Gerwig transforms the ordinary screenplay into something that is by turns charming, touching, and funny. The film feels a little self-indulgently hip around the edges, and showcases a lifestyle a lot of people outside the core demographic will not connect with, but its depiction of self-absorbed, ennui-riddled behavior is on-target.
The story transpires in Woody Allen's New York - which is to say, a fairy tale version of the City That Never Sleeps. This is a Manhattan where single graduate students without two nickels to rub together can afford fabulous apartments (rent control is the throw-away explanation), where it's possible to move in Times Square, where everything is neat and clean, and where you could get away with not locking your doors at night. It's the New York tourists dream about when they think of visiting the Big Apple but not necessarily the one they find when they get there.
Lola (Greta Gerwig) is a 29-year old who thinks she has everything. She's involved in a loving relationship, is planning a wedding to her fiancé, Luke (Joel Kinnaman), and is inching closer to completing her doctoral dissertation. Then, the proverbial rug is pulled out from under her by Luke, who gets cold feet and dumps her. In the aftermath of this personal disaster, Lola finds many shoulders to cry on: her female best friend, Alice (Zoe Lister Jones), her male best friend, Henry (Hamish Linklater), and her hippie parents (Debra Winger and Bill Pullman). As Lola goes about picking up the pieces of her life, she discovers two things: Henry may be more than simply a male best friend and Luke may not be as much out of her life as she wants.
In many ways, Lola Versus puts an indie spin on a Hollywood romantic comedy. Because the film is more interested in character development and interaction than following a formulaic plot trajectory, some may find the waters a little murky. It's useful to remember that indie romantic comedies, although typically ending on an up note, do not have to conclude with a happily-ever-after final shot, and that confessions of undying love don't always mark the climax. But there are some familiar touchstones: finding sexual companionship with a friend, enduring romantic complications, and (of course) the ever-helpful same-sex best friend.
There are enough things to like about Lola Versus that it doesn't all come down to Gerwig, although it's easy to see how this movie could fail without her energy and charisma. She makes Lola likeable, which is an accomplishment since she's not the most pleasant person in Manhattan. When her life melts down, she does her best to ensure that as many people as possible are hit by the shrapnel. True, no one deserves to have happen what Luke does to Lola, but it's amazingly self-centered of her to turn around and treat Henry as shabbily as she does. Yet Gerwig's performance is so strong that it's hard not to feel for Lola, even when she's behaving badly.
A strength of the screenplay, co-written by director Daryl Wein and co-star Zoe Lister Jones, is its willingness to portray the romantic muddle of Lola's life with a fair amount of honesty. The relationships are complicated and messy. True love gets blown out of the water in the first five minutes. There's a lot of awkwardness about how characters approach each other before and after sex. There's guilt. There are consequences. And there are regrets. In some ways, the most sympathetic character is Luke. In breaking off the wedding, he burns his bridges then, when he genuinely wants to find his way back, he discovers there is no road to the destination that once seemed so easily achievable.
The film is being marketed as from the company that brought you 500 Days of Summer. It's a bit of a stretch since Lola Versus is for an older crowd, but there is some of the same vibe. Both films are anchored by their lead female character, both employ a lot of low-key humor and both are unconstrained by Hollywood's Rules of the Romantic Comedy. But 500 Days of Summer has a stronger supporting cast, is more quirky, and feels fresher.
I suspect that, over time, if Lola Versus is remembered, it will be remembered as Gerwig's coming-out party. She's no longer an unknown - Ben Stiller and Noah Baumbach insured that when they picked her for Greenberg, but this is the first time she has been given the opportunity to dominate the screen. And, although Lola Versus is not Mumblecore, it's close enough at times that she can play to her strengths. Fox Searchlight is releasing the film toward the middle of the summer movie season in a counter-programming move that could pay dividends. Lola Versus is a pleasant change-of-pace from the louder, more effects-driven box office giants.
Labels: comedy, romance
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