If traditional Hollywood romantic comedies are like pop rock, then Lola Versus is the equivalent to alternative. Although it has the same basic sensibilities and is generally just as implausible as more mainstream fare, it explores its characters and themes in a quirkier, less soppy way. In terms of plot, we can make out the basic trajectory, but there are times when it deviates from the path, specifically when it comes to the satisfying but not necessarily happy ending. It’s a refreshing approach and a welcome change of pace. All the same, I must admit that I personally prefer more Hollywood-style romcoms, simply because they usually work harder at getting the audience to feel good, if only for about an hour and a half. Yes, there are those of us that are perfectly content with pop.
Taking place in New York City, the film depicts one year in the life of a literature grad student named Lola (Greta Gerwig), beginning on her twenty-ninth birthday with a voiceover narration and a dream sequence in which personal effects such as shoes, handbags, and vibrators wash up by the hundreds on a beach. When she awakens, her longtime boyfriend, an artist named Luke (Joel Kinnaman), proposes to her. Then, only weeks before the wedding, he calls off the engagement. A heartbroken and hopelessly confused Lola moves into her old apartment, which, in a cruel twist of fate, was being rented by a young woman who has just gotten engaged. Lola turns to her best friend, a fringe theater actress named Alice (Zoe Lister-Jones, also the co-writer and one of the executive producers), for advice and support. She also has to content with her well-meaning but misguided parents (Debra Winger and Bull Pullman). Her father still adheres to free love ideals that went out of fashion forty years ago.
Lola will eventually cross a line with her other friend, a singer named Henry (Hamish Linklater), a complication made worse by the fact that he’s also Luke’s friend. Twice, she tries dating a man named Nick (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who is essentially this film’s answer to traditional comedy relief. Consider this line of dialogue, delivered as he and Lola sip wine in his obviously pretentious apartment: “I never set out to be a prison architect. It just happened that way.” As Lola desperately tries to make sense of herself now that she’s single, she’s repeatedly approached by Luke, who it seems does want to work things out with her. She will, of course, surrender in a weak moment and have sex with him, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s ready to take him back. Meanwhile, Alice, in her own loveably neurotic way, laments about being the only single woman in New York. At the same time, she doesn’t want to advance on someone like Henry, given the fact that he and Lola know each other too well.
Reading this plot description, you may feel as if you know exactly where the film will go. To an extent, you’d be right; aspects of Lola Versus are cut from the same cloth as a traditional romantic comedy. But don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. The filmmakers avoided many of the conventions audiences are conditioned to expect, which is good because that means certain elements may actually surprise you. I think the key difference between this film and your run-of-the-mill romcom is that the latter is typically founded on little more than the fantasy of falling in love with the ideal partner; Lola Versus is really more of a character study and isn’t as interested in the mechanics of a contrived romance. It’s about the title character’s journey towards self-discovery.
One thing the filmmakers do right is tone down on personality absolutes. Unlike a Hollywood romcom, where the characters are developed according to broad generalizations, Lola Versus paints in shades of gray and uses smaller strokes. When I described Luke earlier, I’ll bet you came to the conclusion that he was a jerk and that Lola would be better off without him. But it isn’t that clear cut. There are no perfect characters in this movie. They all make mistakes. On the same token, they all have redeeming qualities. Luke may be annoying unclear about what he wants, and he certainly could have handled the situation with Lola in a much better way, but he really isn’t a bad guy.
I also appreciated the way in which the filmmakers depict New York. Rather than bombard us with photogenic shots of landmarks and skylines we’re all very familiar with, they instead opt for smaller, more intimate locations in less well known sections of the city. This isn’t a travelogue; the setting is secondary to the human story at its core. That this particular story happens to revolve around the amusing ups and downs of relationship doesn’t make that much of a difference. Lola Versus is a charming film, one that may not provide general audiences with everything they’ve come to expect from a romantic comedy but still gets the job done nicely. Despite my personal preferences, even I know that it’s good to try out an alternative approach every once in a while.