The name Lola, or some close variation of it, has become a kind of shorthand in the movies for strong yet meretricious women whose liveliness is relentlessly shamed by the needy men they latch on to. A short list of the major Lolas includes Martine Carol’s in Max Ophul’s Lola Montes, about a famous, ruined courtesan and her many suitors; Melanie Griffith’s (Lulu) in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, about a free-spirited, shoplifting sexpot whose ex-husband won’t stop intruding on her life; Anouk Aimee’s in Jacques Demy’s Lola, about a French cabaret dancer juggling men while caring for her young son; and the all-time classic, Louise Brooks’s Lulu in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, a performance and a movie that have become some of the defining cinematic symbols for endurance against the odds. These Lolas are defiantly sexual yet kept women, an intriguing paradox that’s driven men (fictional and of the audience variety) crazy throughout film’s history.
To say that Lola Versus doesn’t carry on the tradition of those four great movies is to understate the obvious. It doesn’t match any of them for pure quality of filmmaking. But leaving aside that it’s a mediocre movie, the naming of the heroine in Lola Versus (I’m assuming, perhaps too rashly, that it was intentional) was a clever idea. The movie attempts to create a new Lola who is less vivacious but no less put-upon, one for the modern, neurotic, upper-middle-class set. While the attempt fails, the idea is solid.
This Lola (Greta Gerwig) — an ineloquent New Yorker who has just begun her graduate studies in comparative literature — is proposed to, plans a wedding, and gets kicked to the curb all within the extended montage that precedes the opening credits. The whole ordeal, rendered to us at warp speed, is the set-up for a movie that shuttles Lola episodically from one post-relationship consolation to the next. Most of the consolations are men, some are food and alcohol, almost none are sound advice (there are some vaguely sage-like ramblings from Bill Pullman as Lola’s dad). The film attempts to capture the feeling of stability falling apart, as Lola’s long relationship and two decades of comfortable schooling begin to fade away. But it falls victim to the same problem it’s trying to outline: like its protagonist, the film cannot or will not make up it’s mind about what it wants to do. It would like Lola to deal realistically with her problems, like how to live alone for the first time in her adult life, but it would also like her to inexplicably have sex with cartoonishly pretentious weirdos, mostly for a little comic relief.
In a better movie, Greta Gerwig would almost definitely be capable of playing one of the great Lolas. As an actress she’s proven she can play aggressively sexual (Baghead), sympathetically vulnerable (Greenberg), and some of the funnier stuff in between (Arthur). When people look back on her career, they’ll probably view it similarly to that of Anouk Aimee and Martine Carol. But Gerwig’s approachable beauty isn’t like theirs, and neither is her Lola. She’s just as sexually voracious as the old ones, but less sure of what to do with that. Instead of pulling a fast one on the men (boyfriends, lovers, dad) who control her life, she actively courts them, and Lola Versus means to show her slowly accepting the possibility that she might not need to.
The film frustrates when it gets distracted from this goal, which is often. It’s always jumping to a new setup when a scene is just getting going, as if it thinks that once Lola has announced that she has problems, the jig must be up. Case in point: midway through the film’s second half (there is little structure — you gauge your place in the story by how near you think Lola might be to screwing up her latest relationship), Lola visits a psychiatrist who asks her what problems she would like to address. She tells him that she can’t shut off her mind — it’s always pulling her in so many directions at once, she can’t hold a clear thought in her head — which makes her confused and depressed. The doctor says okay, let’s work on that, and asks her to close her eyes. She does, and, remarkably, the scene settles quietly for a moment as we watch her ready herself for some kind of confession, potentially a revelation. Then her cell phone goes off. Her attention diverted, she responds to the text that’s just come in, and to emphasize the joke, the movie has her apologize to her psychiatrist as she hurries to send a message through. Once it’s sent, we think we might get back to the serious business of finding out why Lola is depressed, but, amazingly, the scene is over. The whole psychiatrist thing was just an excuse for a joke about tech-induced attention disorder.
This scene exemplifies the main problem with Lola Versus (though there are plenty more like it). Lola can identify her problems, but as soon as she sets out to solve them, something modern and groundless — a smartphone, a fuck-buddy, a stunted man-child — pops up to distract her. Nothing that might actually be her fault, like pure indecisiveness, is offered as a cause. The movie takes the same out. It presents her as both an archetype of the classic Lola now made modern, and as a realistic, functioning, hurting young woman. The sex and cheap humor that attempt to bridge the two might as well be the texts that interrupted writer and director Daryl Wein as he was trying to finish the script.