“Lola Versus” is directed by Daryl Wein and co-written by his partner Zoe Lister-Jones, but the its real auteur is Greta Gerwig. The actress plays the title character as if her career depended on it — which it doesn’t, but the movie does. Gerwig singlehanded carries this blithe, generally forgettable story of a neurotic New Yorker dealing with a botched engagement by applying an energy unworthy of the material. Never one to shy away from a challenging role, she makes an uphill battle look fun.
Wein and Lister-Jones have also moved beyond the microbudget realm. “Lola Versus” is their first studio project following “Breaking Upwards,” an intriguing look at a couple (portrayed by the writing duo) attempting to break up in systematic fashion. The new movie takes the opposite approach by pulling the rug out from Lola’s feet in the credits sequence: After going through the motions planning a wedding with her longtime boyfriend Luke (Joel Kinnaman), Lola comes home to find that him pining for bachelorhood.
In short order, she’s crying on every shoulder she can find: Her best pal Alice (Lister-Jones), platonic guy friend Luke (Hamish Linklater, “The Future”), her aggressively supportive parents (Bill Pullman and Debra Winger, relegated to bit parts and never given much room to shine).
There’s a certain underlying appeal to Lola’s manic-depressive trajectory as she increasingly blames everyone around her for her problems, starting with Luke but eventually branching out to her other close friends. Struggling to complete her dissertation, she’s hardly more than the chalk outline of an aspiring New York intellectual that, for better or worse, owes much to the universe of Woody Allen.
Lola suffers from anger and confusion in every scene, but Gerwig inhabits the character with a raw uneasiness that makes the market standard for romantic comedies look downright meek. More of a damsel in distress than the character she recently played in “Damsels in Distress,” she brings unexpected sadness to superficial material. “I’m a slut, but I’m a good person!” she belts out after sleeping with a close acquaintance and then a weird skater who picks her up at the grocery store in quick succession. Even the preceding awkward sex scene, which mainly emphasizes a juvenile big penis gag, legitimately conveys Lola’s desperation through her befuddled expressions.
Unfortunately, nothing else in “Lola Versus” keeps pace. Lister-Jones inhabits the tired part of goofy sidekick that she plays on the execrable sitcom “Whitney” with an endless barrage of one-liners. (“I gotta go wash my vagina,” she says casually. Encouraging Lola to date, she tells her friend to meet other guys so she can “let them stick it in you and know what it feels like.” And so on.) Then again, at least she has some dimensionality compared to the other secondary castmembers, who mainly stare dumbstruck at Lola’s antics and clear the way for her tantrums.
It could be argued that the movie sticks to Lola’s narcissistic perspective so only her problems really matter, but “Lola Versus” is too superficial to encourage a close reading. Like “Breaking Upwards,” the script contains numerous references to the impact of 21st-century technology on interpersonal communication ranging from iPhone-texting to Facebook-stalking. (When Lola and Alice hit up a grimy nightclub, Alice proclaims that it has landed “number one on Yelp for best bar in a scary neighborhood.” And so on.)
One wonders how much the movie will speak to this era in 20 years even though it essentially reduces it to simplicity. While “Breaking Upwards” used the techno-speak to tap into the essence of modern romance, “Lola Versus” only contains it to remind viewers of the contemporary setting. The movie works hard to amuse at the expense of its credibility. It has no new ideas.
Instead, “Lola Versus” deserves the bulk of the ire being misdirected at the new HBO series “Girls,” which at least deals with its overprivileged young white urbanities in a (some might say radically) self-aware fashion. By comparison, even when “Lola Versus” nails that sense of free-falling in the wake of a lifestyle shake-up, it’s inoffensively familiar. Funny moments abound, but it never strays from predictability. With its blasé resolution and a tidy lineup of sitcom-ready characters, the best thing one can say about “Lola Versus” is that it successfully underwhelms.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Fox Searchlight releases “Lola Versus” on Friday. Although the company is known for its clever marketing tactics, Gerwig’s star power might not be bright enough to carry this one to much business beyond its opening weekend.
Editor’s note: A version of this review originally ran during the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
Watch the “Lola Versus” trailer below: