“Being single builds character.”
At least that’s what Lola Versus‘s ostensible heroine (Greta Gerwig) wants to believe as she stumbles and shuffles through life post-break-up and pre-thirtieth birthday in Daryl Wein‘s girl-on-the verge hipster rom-com, so it’s too bad that it takes her too long to form what one would call character (or even just plain old backbone). The film’s plot is simple to the point of absolute cliche – twenty-nine-year-old Lola is unexpectedly dumped by her beloved fiancee Luke (Joel Kinnaman) just weeks before their wedding, a blow that sends her into a tailspin and makes her reevaluate her entire life. Boom. The end. That’s it. Yes, you’ve seen it before and you’ve probably seen it done better. But, what Lola Versus really presupposes is that maybe you’ve also seen it done worse.
Though Lola Versus is supposed to center on our leading lady’s struggle to rise up after that shocking and painful break-up, the stakes aren’t high enough to actually accommodate such big changes. Lola is given perhaps too soft a place to fall – the principal villain (Kinnaman) of the film is struggling just as mightily with the relationship fall-out, she conveniently has loving parents (Bill Pullman and Debra Winger, impressively trotted out and then criminally underused) who want to take care of her, there’s friends about to ease her (including Hamish Linklater‘s Henry, who is supposed to be dealing with dueling loyalties to both Lola and Luke, and the acid-tongued and perpetually single Alice, co-writer Zoe Lister Jones), she even as her own newly-available sublet to move into and a built-in job at her mom’s restaurants. If this is what a total life upheaval looks like, sign me up.
Gerwig, as ever, charms as Lola, even when she’s acting immature or selfish or hurting people she loves (character-building can, after all, draw some blood). Yet, what she’s given to work with in Lola Versus is perhaps too mainstream and been-there-done-that for to harness all of her sensibilities and skills – just as she was muffled in last year’s Arthur remake, she’s obscured here. Doubly so when one considers her other recent role, in Whit Stillman’s under-seen and under-appreciated return to form, the darling and amusing Damsels in Distress. That’s the sort of work that allows Gerwig to truly shine, but that’s not what Lola Versus is.
Lola could easily be viewed as a cousin to the girls of Girls, though unlike most of the characters in Lena Dunham’s television series, Lola is old enough to recognize her mistakes – though she’s not quite old enough to not make them in the first place. Her attempts at dating other men are staggering misfires – she’s emotionally outmatched by Henry, and her crack at trying to expand her horizons is met with one of the world’s worst first dates, care of Ebon Moss-Bachrach‘s humorous take on a non-killer American Psycho. (Moss-Bachrach’s performance is outstanding, bizarre enough to inject the film with some necessary laughs and just creepy enough to put audiences on edge.) Lola doesn’t know what to do with herself, and neither does her film.
Fortunately, Wein has populated his production with talents who seem eager enough to make their work count. Gerwig is clearly the main event, but Kinnaman (also known as our new RoboCop) effectively steers Luke away from the path most traveled, making him a sympathetic enough character on his own, and Linklater and Lister Jones are supporting character MVPs who deserve significantly more screen time. Lister Jones’ role here as Lola’s best friend Alice may slightly resembles her work as a second fiddle best friend in television series Whitney, but in Lola Versus she’s allowed to actually grow (no shock really, as she did co-write the film), and she ultimately turns in some of the most amusing lines of the entire film. Paired with Lola’s other best friend, Henry, she and Linklater consistently provide comic relief, heart, and some necessary wake-up calls to Lola, and we’re all the better for it.
Lola Versus really hits its stride – tonally, emotionally, humorously – in its final third. After a fairly basic start and a floundering middle section, Wein and his cast finally see their work actually gel, just as we’re nearing the film’s end. As in another female-driven comedy, Bridesmaids, Lola finally suffers some serious indignities on her road to maturity, with most of them culminating at a hellish party. Like Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, Lola is presented with some outrageous (but honest) results from her behavior, and she reacts in a similarly outrageous (but honest) manner. Had Lola Versus translated that across its entire runtime, the film would be an inventive treat – as it stands, it’s a certainly not much worse than its girl-versus-world brethren, but it’s certainly not better.
The Upside: A solid final third and likable performances throughout, including a stand-out supporting turn from a totally deranged (and wonderfully so) Ebon Moss-Bachrach.
The Downside: A cliched story that doesn’t mine any new territory, Lola Versus is a generally minor and forgettable effort from a cast and crew who are capable of far better.
On the Side: Wein and Lister Jones documented their actual break-up in Breaking Upwards, and the pair ultimately embarked on a year-long “sabbatical” from each other before getting back together.