Oh, to be young and in love with the sound of your own voice. “Lola Versus” is a well-intentioned independent film that tries to be a “real” version of a Hollywood romantic comedy and ends up feeling more ersatz than ever. It works so hard to be fresh that all you notice is the strain.
The movie also fails to answer the question of whether Greta Gerwig can carry a movie. She plays the title character, a mopey New York hipstress whose destination wedding to longtime boyfriend Luke (Joel Kinnaman) comes apart at the last minute. “Lola Versus” follows a year in the heroine’s life as she flails, weeps, drinks, has rebound sex with best friend Henry (Hamish Linklater), bad-idea sex with Luke, and alienates everyone in her life. Have many of us been here? Probably. Do we want to watch it? If so, the characters had better be empathetic and the drama newly seen.
In place of insights, the script by director Daryl Wein and costar Zoe Lister-Jones (whose character, Alice, is a cynicalRhoda to Gerwig’s Mary Richards) relies on self-consciously clever wisecracks and cultural references that instantly carbon-date the proceedings. It takes more than name-checking Facebook and Yelp to anchor a movie in shared reality. Lines like “Men are always looking for someone better and women are always looking for whatever works” aim for pithiness and end up sounding canned. As Lola’s ex-hippie dad (Bill Pullman) says on one of their father-daughter strolls atop Manhattan’s High Line (hip location alert!), “There’s a fine line between crap and wisdom.”
I don’t want to beat on “Lola Versus” too badly. There are a few acridly funny scenes that have little to do with the main character’s plight: a terrible downtown play called “Pogrom!” (it’s a metaphor for genital mutilation, we’re told), and a one-night stand with Nick, a self-absorbed stud played with cool hilarity by Ebon Moss-Bachrach (he’s a prison architect and he picks up women by offering to cook them a fish dinner, “freshly caught.”) A bedroom scene with Nick and Lola is the film’s farcical high point and the one moment when we get a sense of the cosmic forces arrayed against the poor girl.
Gerwig (“Greenberg,” “Hannah Takes the Stairs”) is a lovely, vague presence, but she doesn’t have the force of personality to make us see Lola as anything other than her own worst enemy. We don’t root for her so much as tough out a bad year with her. An interesting comparison is with the old Paul Mazursky film “An Unmarried Woman”: Lola is a dis-engaged woman, but she doesn’t have the maturity to make us care about her decisions, good and bad. That may be a generational issue, but it’s hard to dramatize in an 87-minute movie without turning glib.
The other point of comparison, obviously, is with HBO’s “Girls,” in which writer-director-star Lena Dunham and her colleagues bang their heads against many of the same problems in many of the same locations. That show is much darker but also more brutally, realistically funny, and it benefits from an open-ended time frame that lets the narrative develop in ways that honor the characters and their difficulties. “Girls” may be hard to warm to, but it’s bravura TV. “Lola Versus” is a sitcom waiting to happen.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.