When we last saw Greta Gerwig, she was negotiating the shoals of Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, in the role of a sort of unapproachable Vestal Virgin of political correctness at an Eastern university. The part didn’t exactly suit her, and neither did the director’s self-conscious, epigrammatic dialogue. But we could see that Gerwig and her character, Violet Wister, took some pleasure in the pure poetry of Stillman’s lines, as well as in the academic setting — the Sacramento native reportedly graduated magna cum laude from Barnard College.
Now, with Daryl Wein’s Lola Versus, it’s plain to see the 28-year-old actress is being run through a more or less typical Hollywood gauntlet of situations and motifs as she works her way up from mumblecore. Compared to the laid-back, fashionably vague young women she played in Hannah Takes the Stairs, Baghead, and Greenberg, the title character of Lola Versus seems overly homogenized. In fact, actor-turned-filmmaker Wein’s follow-up to Breaking Upwards is utterly, completely predictable, with conventional TV sitcom rhythms and routines. Yet we can’t take our eyes off Lola.
Terminal romantic Lola, 29 and holding, has just been disdainfully dumped at the altar by her commitment-phobic boyfriend Luke (Joel Kinnaman), so she does what any self-respecting rom-com female Manhattanite is supposed to do: binge eats, sleeps around, listens to the bad advice of her friends Alice (co-writer Zoe Lister Jones) and Henry (Hamish Linklater), and, when everything else fails, slugs forties and pole-dances. One nice touch here — Lola’s master’s dissertation is on the use of silence in the poetry of Mallarmé. What a splendidly gratuitous joke. But that is counterbalanced by Lola’s over-reliance on her fumbling, hovering parents, played by Bill Pullman and Debra Winger.
Laugh cues happen along every few minutes, most of them horrible. She has meaningless sex with a prison architect, then a fish salesman. Someone puts on Ani DiFranco during sex. Her trend-o girlfriend Alice suggests increasingly absurd remedies. Hypnotherapy rears its head. Actress-writer-exec-producer Ms. Lister Jones — teaming up again with Wein as in Breaking Upwards, but letting Gerwig carry the load this time — seems to be a major part of the problem with Lola Versus, but in the long run it’s like trying to accurately assign the blame for the Great Recession. Everyone does at least something harmful.
There has been no greater test of Gerwig’s essential charisma, but she overcomes. Barely. In any other movie, the pratfall in high heels onto her bridal bouquet in the last shot would be a cruel and inappropriate trick to play on an actress. For Gerwig, it’s a left-handed tribute to her appeal as an intelligent but self-deprecating comic presence perfectly willing to tumble down stairs to make a point. The challenge for her is to decide what points are worth making. Like her character, Gerwig finally emerges bruised but resilient at the end. So it’s not a total loss.