Lola Versus wants to be an affable romantic comedy. Likeable and attractive, the cast is willing to embarrass themselves for the good of the cause. The script attempts insight in between moments of wit and broad physical comedy. But in order for all this to work, director Daryl Wein needs us to feel sympathy for its main character, which is nearly impossible. Not only does she behave like an idiot and have serious personality issues, Lola has a terrific life and does not seem to know it.
Twenty-nine year Lola (Greta Gerwig) is planning her wedding with Luke (Joel Kinnaman). She’s getting her PhD in French literature; he’s successful in some unspecified way. Right before they’re about to tie the knot, Luke drops the bombshell that he wants out. Lola is reeling, running to her best friend Alice (co-writer Zoe Lister Jones) and her parents (Bill Pullman and Debra Winger). Depriving Lola of closure, Luke keeps popping in to see if everything is ok, so she asks his best friend Henry (Hamish Linklater) if he could stay overnight (not in a sexual way, of course.) And directly because of her self-absorbed depression, Lola sabotages every friendship she has.
Jones and Wein do not make it easy to care about their heroine. Lola starts off as a busybody, and after the break-up, still has a mostly terrific life. The housing situation resolves itself in a throwaway scene – she conveniently sublets her other place to a young woman who wants to leave – and her saint-like parents are unwavering in their support. She finishes her PhD without much fuss. Sure, we learn that Luke was Lola’s first and only boyfriend. Her way of letting lose, however, involves bizarre choices and a dubious debasement. Once Lola accidentally runs into Luke for the third time, it’s clear that Jones and Wein are sacrificing character for drama. Intentionally or not, they have little interest in cultivating any plausible rapport. Gerwig does what she can, yet the writing keeps getting in her way.
The saving grace of Lola Versus is that its supporting characters can actually be funny. Alice is a self-deprecating drug addict who is unafraid of making herself the butt of the joke; it’s a familiar archetype, but Jones adds the right measure of energy. In a fun little sub-plot, Lola goes out with Nick (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) the prison architect, and their one night stand showcases just how bizarre successful men can be. An episode of Girls recently handled a similar plot in a more inventive way, yet the punch line of Nick’s music preferences is a highlight. Wein requires relatively less from Kinnaman and Linklater – they both have a sun-drenched, cute sequences with Lola – but at least the actors are good sports.
Earlier this week, Daryl Wein pissed off a lot of film critics when he said in an interview, “The male critics are attacking the film and our box office really struggled last night. We think this has a lot to do with it being a female driven comedy about a single woman, and the older male critics don’t like messy unapologetic stories with women at the center.” Comments like this get critics angry because it undermines their argument; when they dislike something, there are (usually) actual reasons that are unassociated with gender. There have already been terrific, messy movies about single women this year – Damsels in Distress and Friends with Kids come immediately to mind – so I can say with confidence that compared to his peers, this filmmaker has room for improvement.