The only real differences between bad indie romantic comedies and their Hollywood counterparts are the amplified quirk factor and the downscaled real estate. Other than that, they tend to fail in exactly the same way, by replacing human conversation and emotion with contrived situations and an excess of chatty nonsense. Take Lola Versus, a Greta Gerwig vehicle that feels like a pilot awaiting pick-up from a network that doesn’t exist. The basic premise is common, and entirely relatable: Heroine’s fiancé gets cold feet before the wedding. Heroine takes up with an old friend. Heroine’s fiancé comes back into the picture, leading to conflicted feelings and collateral damage. In other words, this is about a character sorting stuff out, and like 95 percent of purposefully offbeat comedies, it would be much better served by addressing the situation directly and honestly. Instead, it tries to dither its way out of a mess.
Though Gerwig’s daffy appeal is on display seemingly everywhere these days, from mumblecore to Whit Stillman to the Arthur remake, it nonetheless carries Lola Versus as far as it goes, making her character’s terrible mistakes seem eminently forgivable. When Joel Kinnaman (of TV’s The Killing) leaves her deep into their engagement for mysterious reasons, Gerwig faces the prospect of being alone for the first time, unpracticed and emotionally damaged. Her quippy best friend, Zoe Lister-Jones—who co-scripted and seems to have imported jokes from her regular job on NBC’s Whitney—drags her to pick-up spots, but Gerwig ultimately finds comfort in their mutual friend Hamish Linklater, in spite of his understandable wariness at being the rebound guy. Once Kinnaman inevitably crawls back, begging for a second chance, it throws the situation into further upheaval.
There are plenty of good comic and dramatic possibilities embedded in Lola Versus: the folly of late singlehood, the strained loyalties between friends, the fragile potential of new love threatened by the inexorable pull of an old one. Yet Lister-Jones and co-writer/director Daryl Wein cough up hackneyed subplots like Gerwig sleeping with a creepy, rollerblading prison architect who almost certainly keeps bodies hidden under the floorboards. Their impulse to throw random silliness in the face of actual problems—embodied by the nonstop shtick of Lister-Jones’ character—muddies the modern tale of self-reliance it’s trying to tell. Only the creepy rollerblader seems capable of saying what he means.