Gerwig Saves Otherwise Rote 'Lola Versus'
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
With its utterly conventional plot, sunny New York cinematography and loose, light-footed feel, "Lola Versus" might as well be a pilot for some new sit-com or serial drama -- and, at the same time, it's a sit-com or serial drama I'd watch. Our heroine, dumped but three weeks before her big wedding, makes a series of choices as a result of that change before kinda sorta getting life back on track again. The film, and the audience, however, both benefit from the presence of Greta Gerwig as Lola. Gerwig makes her likable, human, watchable -- and to such a degree that even when the film dips and slips into cliché territory you're glad to have Gerwig as your guide on the all-too familiar journey.
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Directed by Daryl Wein and co-written by Wein and his partner Zoe Lister-Jones, "Lola Versus" starts with a jostling bump with, even before the credits, Lola's long-standing boyfriend Luke (Joel Kinnaman) proposing marriage, planning their wedding and then calling the whole thing off. Shattered, Lola stumbles into a series of mishaps -- bad choices, bad dates, bad sex -- with her friends and family gathered around her. The film's funny and frank about relationships and sex, to its credit, and it manages to be clear-eyed without being cringe-inducing on both topics.
Say what you will about Gerwig's skills as an actress -- I'm not sure if I'd want to see her play Miss Julie or Ophelia -- but there's no denying that she's easy to watch on film in appropriately urban settings. Gerwig's face lights up with bruised optimism, or human fallibility, and her being so eminently watchable means that the film itself is eminently watchable.
Clearly shot swiftly and off the cuff, the movie has a great cast. Kinnaman doesn't let Luke become a cardboard bad guy, and Debra Winger and Bill Pullman are excellent as Lola's devoted, lightly dotty parents. Hamish Linklater is the lanky, geeky Henry, best friend to both Lola and Luke, and Linklater's supporting work is a nice counterpoint to Gerwig's work. Lister-Jones plays Lola's best friend Alice, and while she may be a little too manic and best-friendsy, she still gets a few laughs. (Alice at one point confuses oxytocin -- the chemical made in the brain by orgasm -- with oxycontin, the highly addictive opiate, thinking she's enjoyed a pill of the former before a party when it turns out to be the latter).
There are some laughs here, and plenty of standard-issue moviemaking turns. Why is it, I always wonder, that directors and writers show us people talking and falling in love via montage while a pop song plays over whatever it is they're talking about? I'm way more interested in what it is they're actually saying, but I guess tradition must be obeyed. And Gerwig -- whose performances in both this film and "Damsels in Distress" are two of the better performances of 2012, and at the same time remarkably different -- is easy to watch in her stumbling journey towards happiness. The filmmakers may have arrayed plenty of slings and arrows of romantic misfortune to pit "Lola Versus," but it's Gerwig who gets us on her side.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.