Directed by Daryl Wein
Greta Gerwig may have logged time in big-studio releases like No Strings Attached and Arthur last year, but Lola Versus represents her first all-out star turn; unlike the former (or Damsels in Distress, for that matter), this movie comes solely from her character's point of view, and Gerwig appears in every single scene. Appropriate to Gerwig's dual career tracks, Lola Versus is a romantic comedy right down the mini-major middle: an indie-aesthetic comedy with plenty of old-fashioned polish. It follows a year in the life of Gerwig's Lola as she tries to piece her life back together after her fiancé Luke (Joel Kinnaman) unexpectedly kicks her to the curb, trying to wring relatable comedy and pathos from Lola's 29-going-on-uh-oh flailing.
But as with Breaking Upwards, the last fiction film from director/cowriter Daryl Wein and his collaborator Zoe Lister-Jones, the funny-sad accessible-indie cocktail doesn't taste quite right: it combines the rambling, disjointed narrative of naturalistic NYC indies with the shtick of NYC sitcoms—middling ones, not 30 Rock. I'm never one to beat the TV-is-better-now drum, but it's hard not to think that this kind of thing—the self-aware self-obsession thing—is trickier to nail in the wake of Lena Dunham's HBO series Girls (or, if you want to keep it movies-only kosher, Lena Dunham's hilarious movie Tiny Furniture).
Divorced from those admittedly unfair comparisons, Lola Versus has its modest charms: a running time of only eightysomething minutes, and spending all of those minutes in Gerwig's company. She renders Lola's sulky, fidgety navel-gazing sweet and charming, and for a while she gives heartbreak clichés a semi-bohemian spin; even during a post-breakup eating binge, she Lola just gorges on rice chips ("these have so much sodium"). But fighting spirit of the title—Lola against whatever—doesn't turn up in the character, or the movie itself.
Instead of standing against the world, Lola and Lola face backward, toward crazy-eyed Luke and soft-spoken Henry (Hamish Linklater), who is repeatedly referred to both a mutual friend of the couple and Lola's best friend because the movie can't seem to get its exposition straight. Both Gerwig and Linklater have assayed more affecting, less affected versions of relationship ennui in movies like Greenberg and The Future; rather than an indie dream pairing, though, here they're half mumblecore nerds (fumbling through ambiguous intimacy) and half romcom routine (the best friend with an obvious secret crush on the heroine). A sketchy love triangle turns into a narrative cul-de-sac.
Wein and Lister-Jones populate that cul-de-sac with underrealized characters—sometimes personally. Lister-Jones herself plays Alice, Lola's other best friend, and delivers canned sitcom lines based on whatever the movie needs her to be in any given scene: a lovelorn singleton, an unstable druggie, a pretentious actress, a label-conscious preppie, or a raunchy truth-teller. These traits could be synthesized into a believable person, but Lister-Jones, a talented character actress, is so busy delivering her flat zingers that she doesn't have time to turn Alice into one.
Though ostensibly about Lola's escape from self-obsession and self-sabotage, Wein never expands the movie beyond these types and caricatures, and it grows repetitive. Though he has a nice eye for sun-burnished 35mm compositions, moving over from the accomplished digital-video imagery of Upwards, the back half of Lola Versus shows inordinate dramatic concern with the talky hows and whens of bumping into people at parties where they've been invited to show up. Lola may think she lives in New York, but she's actually trapped in underpopulated indie-comedy purgatory.
Opens June 8