The title of the latest indie spin on romantic comedy, Lola Versus, offers an enticing ambiguity; who is this Lola going up against? Boys? Herself? The world? Given that Lola is played by the comely and typically winning Greta Gerwig (Greenberg, Damsels in Distress), the last possibility seems least likely. But it is the movie’s uneven writing—half funny and daring, half punishing and senseless—that proves to be Lola’s biggest opponent.
Lola Versus opens with Lola on top of the world. She’s preparing to defend her thesis (on the place of silence in poetry and prose. Ha!) and madly in love with longtime boyfriend Luke (Joel Kinnaman), an artist. They’re in sync in bed and comfortably co-habitating in his nice loft. When he proposes, she’s thrilled. Then, a few weeks before their destination wedding—in Peru—she comes home to find him sitting on the couch, looking stricken. “Honey, what’s up, did you have a stroke?” she asks. More like groom’s frostbite; the wedding is off. He needs time, space (but as it turns out, not solitude). Lola retreats to her parents’ apartment—Dad and Mom are played by Bill Pullman, and in a welcome but rare screen appearance, Debra Winger—to weep on the couch. But being a careful, sensible sort, deliberately the opposite of her free-spirited hippie parents, Lola even falls apart carefully; choosing rice chips over true junk food.
Among her peers she has two main shoulders to cry on, that of her best friend Alice (Zoe Lister Jones, a regular on Whitney), who is sardonic, unloved by men and prone to making vulgar jokes about unclean vaginas. Lister Jones has no one to blame for this unappealing characterization but herself, since she co-wrote the screenplay with director Daryl Wein. Then there is Henry (Hamish Linklater from The Future), Lola’s best friend forever. Don’t get the idea that Henry is gay or anything; the screenplay very quickly establishes him as nicer than Luke but still a playah in his own skinny jean, boho hair kind of way. “Chicks love old phones,” Henry says, brandishing his ancient cell. “They think it means I listen more.”
Linklater is a whole parade of bashful charm and I liked that joke. I liked a lot of the jokes in Lola Versus, and I wanted to root for Lola in the worst way as she tears up the town looking for her self-esteem and purpose in life. She, like Lena Dunham’s determined-to-be-open-minded character Hannah in HBO’s Girls, is prone to going along with unappealing proposals from men when it is clear she should say no. I knew Lola shouldn’t ever date the pedantic foodie she meets at the fish counter, but I wanted her to, just so that I could continue to enjoy the deadpan delivery of the actor who plays him, Ebon Moss-Bachrach. Sleeping with another inappropriate guy, she makes a big show of enjoying herself, a girl trying hard to prove herself a woman. “So what do you sound like when you really come?” he asks at the end.
(READ: James Poniewozik’s review of HBO’s Girls)
In a traditional romantic comedy, that guy, the one that calls her on her pretenses, would turn out to be the guy for Lola. To their credit, Lister Jones and Wein don’t want to go that way; they’re clearly interested in bucking the conventions of the chick flick. But the problem is, they don’t know quite what to do with Lola instead. Their choice is weird, punishing even. The character is subjected to a climactic reveal involving her friends, who remain strangely unsympathetic, willing to twist the knife in Lola’s heart. Isolated and hurt, she spends a night doing implausible things (a scene at a strip club was so unlikely it ruins the movie). We’re meant to believe that the true culprit who screwed up Lola’s life is Lola herself. I didn’t buy that perspective, which is just another simplistic modus operandi of chick flicks. Can’t it be a combination of factors, as in, you know, life? It’s possible that Gerwig, who plays Lola’s moments of deflation and chagrin beautifully, can’t pull off the bad guy. Watching her apologize to her friends made sense; believing that she needed to didn’t.
(READ: Mary Pols’s review of Gerwig’s Damsels in Distress)
The broad intent of Lola Versus, trying to take an honest look at life and love in the big city, parallels what Dunham is doing with Girls. Lola is a few years older than Hannah, Marnie, et al., less self-absorbed and more directed (although for most of the movie she’s stuck on one chapter of that dissertation), but she too is a girl, drifting, seeking her identity as a woman. It might not be fair to hold Lola Versus up against Girls for comparison, since Girls doesn’t have the same obligation to wrap up (or attempt to) the lives of its characters in 90 or so minutes. There are plenty of people who say that today’s television is better than today’s movies. That’s a sweeping generalization, but certainly I found it impossible to think about all that’s wrong about Lola Versus, a movie that aspires to be deep but never gets out of the shallows even with a wonderful actress in the lead, without thinking about all that’s right about Girls.