Greta Gerwig may be getting a little weary of being called the indie film “It girl” – there, it just happened again! – but the label still fits as her most recent work hits the big screen. The uneven but enjoyable lightweight comedy Lola Versus lands in cinemas between the release of Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress and Woody Allen’s forthcoming To Rome With Love. Yet unlike those high-profile ensemble comedies, Lola Versus is all Greta all the time, a bonanza for fans and proof that Gerwig’s easy offbeat charm, obvious smarts and physical comedy gifts can carry a film.
The opening title sequence starts with the 29th birthday of PhD student Lola (Gerwig), who is proposed to by her handsome artist boyfriend Luke (Joel Kinnaman) after a tumble in bed, followed by a fun montage of wedding prep, a succinct way to introduce other characters and their roles in her life. As the credits end, Luke has decided to pull the plug on their wedding. Lola’s sudden heartbreak is the jumping off point for the social life adjustment in store.
Director Daryl Wein co-wrote the screenplay with Zoe Lister-Jones, who gives herself some of the film’s funniest lines and bits of business as Lola’s best friend Alice, a thin, neurotic brunette foil to the more contemplative, athletic blonde Lola. Wein and Lister-Jones co-wrote and co-starred in Breaking Upwards, a 2010 indie comedy following a twentysomething New York couple who orchestrate their breakup. Lola Versus treads on similar ground, subject and location-wise, but here, of course, we get one gal’s experience of the aftermath.
Alice and Lola’s chatty former-hippie parents (the perfectly cast Bill Pullman and Debra Winger) are full of unsolicited advice. While Lola valiantly tries to refashion her recreational activities we suspect she’d prefer to throw herself into academics – her PhD is something about the silence in the work a particular French poet and the lack thereof in contemporary popular culture. But reading and thinking and typing are hard to make lively in an indie romantic comedy.
Instead, there are scenes of clubbing and house parties, the expected backslide (lunch with Luke lands them back in bed) and a sequence of Lola cavorting with Henry (Hamish Linklater), her best platonic male friend, whom she invites to sleep over and uses to get back at Luke.
The film’s best material is found in scenes of high ickyness with Nick (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), whom Lola meets early in the film while she’s buying fish. Everything about this guy screams “wrong fit” as he hands her his number with a promise of a home-cooked meal. Later, Lola does indeed end up in the artfully decorated apartment of Nick, a roller-blading prison architect, trying to laugh at his supremely awkward conversation. For lack of something to say, she suggests they hit the bedroom, where his unsmooth moves and discussion of his, uh, equipment are cringe-inducingly funny.
As she moves ever closer to the big 3-0, Lola realizes that going through the motions isn’t helping her move forward. After uncharacteristically making a scene at a party, she bottoms out in an odd comic solo scene in which Gerwig pulls out all the stops as Lola on an all-night bender.
Gerwig, whose talent first emerged at the dawn of the so-called mumblecore film movement, has made such a strong impression so far playing a certain kind of urban girl, it’s hard to imagine her buffed and trimmed and squeezed into a period costume or superhero outfit. But considering her career trajectory right now that could be where she’s headed, as so many have before her. At least we’ll have Lola Versus to remind us of her rough edges and lanky grace.
Lola Versus open in Toronto June 15, Vancouver June 22 and Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Ottawa, Victoria and Winnipeg June 29.Special to The Globe and Mail