The fragmented title Lola Versus practically invites snarky writers like me to complete the phrase with a summation of our criticisms. Indeed, the longer title Lola Versus the Writing popped into my head about halfway through the film, because while the main character struggles with love, sex, friendship, herself, and more, her fiercest antagonist is undoubtedly the horrendous script she’s been saddled with. A script that, by the end of the film, made me loath Lola and every single person in her frustrating mess of a life.
The thing is, were it not for her arch nemesis the screenplay, I think I could like Lola very much. Greta Gerwig isn’t just bubbly and appealing in the title role, but impressively nuanced, thoughtful, and illustrative. She seems intent on crafting a compelling three-dimensional character, and when the writing allows her to do so, she’s a perfectly pleasant screen presence. We actually start the movie firmly on Lola’s side, because she seems like a nice person and she’s just been abandoned by her seemingly perfect fiancé. Who wouldn’t feel for her? With her other half gone, an identity crisis seems entirely natural, making Lola’s initial run of depressive, self-destructive behavior tolerable. I even decided I liked Lola’s goofy best friend for helping her through such hard times.
Then, surprisingly early in the movie, the script completely loses its handle on Lola. She stops being an understandably depressed young woman and becomes an incomprehensibly dysfunctional wreck of a human being. She embarks on a rebound relationship with her best male friend, proceeds to immediately break his heart, repeatedly screws over her female best friend, continually toys with her ex by hinting she’ll get back together with him before running out of the room crying, and makes countless other personal mistakes completely disproportionate to her previously established level of intelligence.
And that’s not even what makes Lola profoundly unlikable. No, I grew to hate her because in spite of all the ways she ruins her own life, she never stops moaning and complaining to anyone who will listen about how terrible her life has become and how mad she is at the people she’s been horrible to for making her miserable. In turn, I started detesting her friends for putting up with her. And then I began despising the movie for making me watch these people be awful for 90 straight minutes.
I don’t object to any movie featuring an unlikable or flawed protagonist. That’s fine. Typically, that’s compelling. Perfect people don’t make for good drama, and sometimes, it’s when we stop sympathizing with the character that we become truly invested in their plight. But it is never okay to prevent us from empathizing with the protagonist. We must understand why they do the things they do, and their actions must be consistent with established characteristics, even if those actions turn out to be self-destructive.
But Lola? Lola is just baffling on every possible level. I don’t understand why she keeps returning to her ex-boyfriend and then getting mad when he expects reconciliation. I’m confounded when she decides it’s a good idea to date a creepy stalker who makes advances in a butcher’s shop. I’m bewildered that she decides to do so just as things start going well with her male best friend. I’m mystified when she gets mad at others for doing the exact same things she does, like sleeping with friends or looking for new relationships. I cannot comprehend why the Lola we meet in the first fifteen minutes acts like twenty different equally flawed characters over the course of the film. I feel completely in the dark about what convinces her she’s suddenly happy in the final act, other than that the credits are approaching and she might as well find resolution somewhere.
Writers Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister Jones are even shameless enough to sell their main character out for a cheap joke whenever they possibly can. From groan-worthy physical humor to silly substance-free one-liners, I’m never sure if I’m supposed to laugh with Lola or at Lola. Mostly, I just scour.
The screenplay, in fact, has a far bigger identity crisis than Lola, unsure if it’s a light, quippy rom-com, a quirky indie dramedy, a temporally displaced eighties sex-comedy, or a serious character study. It tries to be all these things, often in the same scene, and the film is simply incapable of riding such tricky tonal shifts. It doesn’t help that the quips are flat and lifeless, the drama convoluted beyond belief, the sex jokes flaccid, and the characters as uniformly inconsistent as Lola.
Jones herself plays Lola’s female best friend, Alice, and it’s almost impressive how poorly-defined the character is. I hate using the term ‘weird’ in reviews, because I think it’s a lazy, cop-out form of criticism, but when a character makes as little sense as Alice, it’s the only word that fits. Alice is weird. There is no possible way to get a handle on her, even in a 90-minute movie, because she’s a different character every single time she appears, with varying motivations, personality quirks, and degrees of humanity. The only constant is that she’s a vehicle for awful jokes that bomb hard, and that I’m always confused why Lola confides in this particular person.
That being said, the majority of the performances are on par with Gerwig’s, even if the writing lets all of them down at one point or another. Joel Kinnaman is excellent as the ex-fiancé, Luke, adding welcome layers of nuance and humanity to a severely underwritten part. As male friend Henry, Hamish Linklater is a warm, likable screen-presence, and Bill Pullman provides tremendous amounts of goofy fun as Lola’s father, the only comprehensible character on screen. We can, after all, forgive a parent for having a blind-spot for their daughter, even if she is a perplexing screw-up.
As for everyone else in the movie? They have no excuse. They should stay far away from Lola, and so should you.
If I sound overly harsh, that’s because Lola Versus has real potential. I am so much more frustrated at mediocre movies that squander creative possibilities than I am at outright stinkers, and it’s infuriating how far Lola Versus sinks from beginning to end. It’s got an outstanding cast, solid thematic foundations about what it means to find one’s identity in a confusing world, and an authentic female perspective seen far too rarely in filmmaking. But the script dives off the deep-end very fast, loosing a handle on its characters, its subtext, and even its humor. I cannot recommend Lola Versus, but I very much wish I could.
Lola Versus has plenty of potential, but with a script that has absolutely no handle on its lead character, the experience quickly becomes unbearably frustrating.