Friday, June 15, 2012

Lola Versus: Undone by a bogus script

Lola Versus (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor and drug use
By Derrick Bang

Lola (Greta Gerwig) wanders aimlessly during the year following her 29th birthday, her fickle and frequently self-destructive behavior often destroying any good will she establishes during brief flashes of actual maturity.

When best friend Alice (Zoe Lister-Jones, left) encourages Lola (Greta
Gerwig) to jump back into the dating pool, the waters suddenly seem
full of sharks and minnows ... neither of which is good news for a
mildly desperate woman on the rebound.
The same can be said of the film she inhabits.

Lola Versus opens with promise, but rapidly devolves into an overly talky quagmire that feels (and sounds) like a bad Woody Allen film. Co-scripters Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein introduce Lola as a self-assured and obviously intelligent woman — not everybody has the smarts to be inches away from a Ph.D. — but then subject her to an escalating series of bad decisions and stupid choices, not to mention enough drug and alcohol binging to send the next half-dozen people into rehab.

In short, it becomes impossible to retain our sympathy for Lola, despite Gerwig’s heroic effort to showcase her character’s quirky charm.

Then, too, the dialogue exchanges concocted by Lister-Jones and Wein are too arch, too contrived, too knowingly earthy and too faux trendy. Granted, nobody in real life talks like the folks on the big screen, but — best-case scenario — we viewers at least can delight in witty, sophisticated banter when it’s delivered with well-timed snap. Too much of the conversational chatter here is ostentatiously smutty, as if Lister-Jones and Wein are taking their cues from the gals in Sex and the City.

Sorry, but talking like Kim Cattrall’s Samantha is not the height of chic refinement. Not even close.

We meet Lola on her aforementioned 29th birthday, an event celebrated in the arms of longtime boyfriend Luke (Joel Kinnaman), who climaxes the milestone by proposing. Cue several weeks (months?) of excited wedding planning, with some decisions second-guessed by Lola’s fashionably cool parents, Robin and Lenny (Debra Winger and Bill Pullman).

Pullman is a hoot: one of the film’s stronger elements, actually, and I wish we could have spent more time with him. Lenny is recently retired and loving this opportunity to hang loose and embrace social media and all the other “with it” joys of the early 21st century; he and Lola also enjoy a frank and loving relationship.

Winger’s Robin is perhaps somewhat controlling, but Lola is strong enough — and savvy enough — to maintain the necessary barriers.

Then, suddenly, and for no apparent reason — mere weeks from the actual wedding — Luke pulls out. We never do get an adequate explanation for this behavior, although not for lack of effort; Lola and Luke spent the rest of the film hovering in each other’s orbits, like moths drawn to familiar (but perilous) candle flames. And they talk-talk-talk constantly — mostly at each other; rarely with each other — without ever saying anything of consequence.

In the immediate aftermath of Luke’s departure, though, Lola is understandably disconsolate. Her life is over; her boon companion is gone; her heart is broken; her chi is ruptured ... you get the idea. Best friend Alice (Lister-Jones again) offers saucy, snarky advice that’s never anything approaching sensible; such opinions also vary like the phases of the moon. Which is to say, pretty much everything Alice says is useless.

Alice is the sort of friend who’d insist “Oh, you’re better off without him” in the wake of a guy’s betrayal, but then congratulate you for hopping back into bed with him, in a weird attempt at closure. Or reconciliation. Or whatever.

Alice is, in fact, less a flesh-and-blood human being, and more a wannabe stand-up comic in search of a stage. It cannot be accidental that Lister-Jones (the writer) gives Lister-Jones (the actress) all the best lines, and this affectation often destroys the rhythm of an otherwise promising exchange of dialogue. I guess Alice is intended as comic relief, but she too often rips us out of the narrative.

Seeking guy companionship, Lola leans heavily on Henry (Hamish Linklater), a musician and mutual friend she shared with Luke. Henry and Luke also are longtime best buds, which makes things awkward when the chaste friendship between Lola and Henry blossoms into something more serious.

Or does it? Truth be told, it’s rather difficult to tell. Lola and Henry talk a good show, but Gerwig and Linklater share zero chemistry. That may be intentional, because the film seems to strongly suggest that Lola and Luke are meant for each other ... despite the latter’s unwillingness to go along with this theory.

Lola also enjoys (?) a sidebar dalliance with Nick (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a pretentious dweeb who picks her up outside a fish market. I’ve no idea what Nick’s purpose is in this story; he seems to exist mainly as an object of ridicule, and as an indicator of Lola’s romantic blindness. Oh, and also because he’s well-hung (?!), and because their horizontal bop allows some bizarre lip-service concerning safe sex.

Which, actually, brings up this film’s major problem. This is New York City, folks: an exciting environment, yes, but also a potentially dangerous city. Lola’s alcohol-fueled antics include passing out on sidewalks and waking up outside locked apartment doors: behavior that would get her mugged, raped or killed under remotely authentic circumstances.

Her drunken sojourn at a pole-dancing titty bar is the nadir of such conduct: an eye-rolling episode so beyond the pale that I ceased to care about anything that happened next.

No doubt Lister-Jones and Wein would argue that such experiences are signposts along Lola’s journey toward “finding herself,” but — forgive me — that’s a crock. This film is less a cohesive narrative and more a series of short stage sketches in search of continuity. Wein, who directs, gets no points for orchestrating his film with any sense of tone, balance or atmospheric unity.

Ironic, then, that one scene finds Lola and Henry enduring a pretentious off-off-off-Broadway play that features Alice (an aspiring actress) in a supporting role. We’re clearly intended to join Lola and Henry, as they snicker at this laughably pompous bit of stage twaddle, but y’know what? This film is just as silly ... and apparently not by design.

These vacuous, self-centered characters — all of them — clearly deserve each other, but they don’t deserve happiness or anything approaching authentic career and emotional fulfillment.

All of which is a shame, because Gerwig is worthy of much, much better. She’s an engaging actress — with a strong command of the camera — and has been a stand-out highlight as a supporting player in otherwise unremarkable films such as Greenberg, No Strings Attached and the recent remake of Arthur. She has presence; she also projects a captivating blend of intelligence and vulnerability ... all of which are wasted here.

Because, try as she might, Gerwig cannot get us to like, admire or even sympathize with Lola. This woman’s too much of a train wreck.

Gerwig has been working hard: 17 (!) films in the past five years, many of them indie darlings that gained minimal (if any) wide release. She has earned the sort of breakout hit that Emma Stone got with Easy A, but Lola Versus clearly isn’t that film.

We’ll see Gerwig again this summer, in Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love. And while that’ll be a typical Allen ensemble part, perhaps she’ll have a better chance to shine.

We can hope.

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