Film Reviews

Image: Greta Gerwig and Joel Kinnaman, trying hard to look like they're not acting

Lola Versus mumbles its way into a witty hit

Lola Versus, the new woman-on-the-verge-of-30 comedy starring Greta Gerwig, bolts out of its starting blocks saddled with an excessively weighty question: Can mumblecore go legit?

We’re talking about the no-budget, seemingly scriptless indie films about self-obsessed twenty-somethings facing early-life crises. Gerwig made a name for herself in such genre-defining films as LOL and Hannah Takes The Stairs. The difference here is that Lola Versus has a budget, which translates into lighting, art direction, editing, a script and name actors.

Which actually poses a problem. The appeal of mumblecore is that the lack of production values gives a certain verisimilitude, a sense that we might be watching a documentary of real people’s lives rather than the manufactured reality of a Hollywood movie. A serious budget raises the stakes. Can Lola Versus hold up under the weight of its cinematic trappings?

Gerwig’s Lola is dumped by her fiancé three weeks before their “destination” wedding. In a downward spiral, she destroys her relationships with all except her parents (Bill Pullman and Debra Winger).

Perhaps more than any actor in films today, Gerwig reducesthe gap between script and performance. Youʻre not watching someone act as so much as observing behavior. Because of this, her on-screen meltdownis believable, hilarious and tragic. Running through the streets with two bottles of stolen tequila, performing a fully-clothed pole-dance, Gerwig makes us feel that these are very natural things for her character to do, given the circumstances.

The best jokes in the movie pop out of Gerwig’s mouth as if unwritten. When Lola and a man with whom sheʻs had a one-night-stand (a loopy Ebon Moss-Bachrach) run into her new boyfriend, she quips, “Okay, I’m slutty, but I’m a good person.” In one of the film’s funniest moments, Lola’s explanation to her dissertation board that her thesis is about the importance of silence in French literature is met with a deafening, dead-pan silence.

As for the question, “Can it still be mumblecore if the actors know what they’re saying?”, the answer is yes, thanks to the clever script, cowritten by director Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister Jones (who plays Lola’s wise-cracking best friend)–and to Gerwig’s unique talent for making the mechanics of acting invisible.

Lola Versus is not a full-fledged triumph: The ending feels contrived, the male actors, apart from Moss-Bachrach, give pretty shallow performances, and the great Debra Winger is sorely underutilized. But it does manage to marry the spontaneity of mumblecore with the sharp wit of a well-crafted Hollywood rom-com. And from that marriage a star has been born.