Lola Versus (2012)
87 min., rated R.
Every bland-to-bad romantic comedy out there—and, for that matter, any movie—could use a little Greta Gerwig. Katherine Heigl and Kate Hudson are finally slowing down to let the indie film darling shine and become a household name. D.I.Y. writer-director Daryl Wein, who got his start with 2010's micro-budget "Breaking Upwards," and actress/co-writer Zoe Lister Jones cast Gerwig in "Lola Versus," the real-life couple's second collaboration. Distributed by a studio but made with an independent spirit, this indie soul-searching comedy is more amusing and insightful than most glossy, clichéd Hollywood romantic comedies that often treat women like losers because they don't have a man.
In a surreal opening scene with Gerwig's Lola doing yoga on the beach, where shoes and vibrators wash up onto the shore, the title protagonist narrates about how an astrology book told her that her life is ready to turn upside down. Change is inevitable, but she already likes the way her life is. Lola has just turned 29. She lives with her painter boyfriend, Luke (Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman), in their Lower East Side loft and he's just proposed. Then after all the wedding plans, he breaks it off out of nowhere. Now it's Lola against the world. Feeling sorry for herself as if she should've seen the breakup coming, Lola sleeps and weeps a lot and power eats, while having shoulders to lean on from her two best friends, single actress Alice (Zoe Lister Jones), and Luke's mutual buddy, Henry (Hamish Linklater), who's clearly a good match for her. But Lola has to learn to live her own life, so she moves back into her old subletted apartment to finish writing her literature dissertation, with some make-up/rebound/random sex, heavy drinking, and pot smoking on the side. Reading or watching "Eat, Pray, Love" will be of no use to her.
We've all been there, at our worst, after a breakup; although Luke seems like a dullard that she would seem better off without, Lola doesn't know it yet. She is just as vulnerable and confused as anybody could be, and by the end she learns that "to love yourself you have to learn how to love other people," which is a true assessment. The neurotic Lola easily could have been a whiny, navel-gazing martyr, but the loose, natural actress playing Lola bares her soul and has a way of making the character appealingly flawed, relatable, and sympathetic. Gerwig is like the second coming of Zooey Deschanel, but a fresh talent all by herself. Adorable, quirky, and radiant, she has such a groovy, wonderfully approachable presence that just lights up the screen. Having put a distinctively delightful spin on each of her supporting roles in "Greenberg," "No Strings Attached," and "Damsels in Distress," Gerwig is always a guaranteed asset and finally headlines a film that's all hers.
Supporting roles are also filled with more flavor than usual. As Alice, Lola's wacky gal pal, co-writer Jones (playing a similarly sharp-tongued BFF character on TV's "Whitney") gives herself the funniest one-liners and delivers them with cynical, deadpan aplomb. "The whole thing is a metaphor for genital mutilation. Did you not get that?" she says to Lola after her and Henry sit through Alice's painfully abstract stage play. "What am I eating? This is just gas in a box," she quips, digging into her meal from a food truck. Alice is pretty sitcom-worthy, tossing out lines that are quicker and funnier than anyone could think up in real life on the fly, but Jones adds her own fizz to an obligatory role. As Henry, one of Lola's best friends and rebounds, Linklater is likable, funny, and charming, and a scrawny, unconventional romantic lead. Playing Lola's cool, loving parents, Winger and Pullman are a sight for sore eyes, returning back to the screen in nicely written roles. Lola takes up waiting tables at her mom's restaurant; one of the priceless moments has a grumpy customer asking her for fruit cocktail in a glass of red wine, so she brings a pitcher with wine and pears. Ebon Moss-Bachrach also pops up as a weird prison architect named Nick who gets Lola's number at a deli; he sells an amusingly strange scene when he unveils a penile surprise to Lola from being an "incubator baby" and then sings along with Ani DiFranco during sex.
Carrying over their observant ears and eyes for relationships from "Breaking Upwards," Wein and Jones buck rom-com inanities and some genre conventions for their humorously crisp and emotionally sweet script. Unlike the spotty technical specs in the filmmaking couple's previous indie, the film is beautifully lighted and expertly lensed by cinematographer Jakob Ihre. Woody Allen would be proud because N.Y.C. is lovingly shot like a dream. The alternative, easy-listening score by Fall on Your Sword is even a nice respite from a poppy Top 40 soundtrack.
In the wake of Lena Dunham's HBO series "Girls"—a terrifically smart, funny, and insightful show by the way—every other film and show about female relationships seems pretty quaint in its path and might as well go home. Luckily, "Lola Versus" hones in on how women really think and finally observes almost-30 women, like Lola, realizing they don't need Mr. Right to complete them. The final scene that has Lola falling down on the sidewalk and then getting right back up could have been treated solely as a pratfall gag, but it sums up how she takes care of her life now. She's putting herself first.