At the moment there are few greater clichés in the media than the freaking out single woman on the cusp of 30. Of course clichés are clichés for a reason worth exploring even through the lens of just one or two women as in Lola Versus. Unfortunately while the intention behind Lola Versus isn't that we should all be happily married by the age of 30 it still fits into the same rubric of all those "Why You're Not Married" books.
Lola (Greta Gerwig) has a gorgeous fiancé Luke (Joel Kinnaman) and they live in a giant loft together the kind of dreamy NYC real estate that seems to exist primarily in the movies. Just as they're planning their gluten-free wedding cake with a non-GMO rice milk-based frosting Luke dumps her. It's cruelly sudden — although Luke isn't a cruel man. Lola finds little comfort in the acerbic wit of her best friend the eternally single Alice (Zoe Lister-Jones) who is probably delighted to see her perfectly blonde best friend taken down a peg and into the murky world of New York coupling. Lola and Luke share a best friend Henry (Hamish Linklater) a messy-haired rumpled sweetheart who is kind and safe and the inevitable shelter for Lola's fallout. Her parents well-meaning and well-to-do hippie types feed her kombucha and try to figure out their iPads and give her irrelevant advice.
Lola Versus is slippery. Its tone careens between broad TV comedy and earnest dramedy almost as if Alice is in charge of the dirty zingers and Lola's job is to make supposedly introspective statements. Alice's vulgar non-sequiturs are tossed off without much relish and Lola's dialogue comes off too often as expository and plaintive. We don't need Lola to tell Henry "I'm vulnerable I'm not myself I'm easily persuaded" or "I'm slutty but I'm a good person!" (Which is by the way an asinine statement to make. One might even say she's not even that "slutty " she's just making dumb decisions that hurt those around her just as much as she's hurting herself.)
We know that she's a mess — that's the point of the story! It's not so much that a particularly acerbic woman wouldn't say to her best friend "Find your spirit animal and ride it until its d**k falls off " but that she wouldn't say it in the context of this movie. It's from some other movie over there one where everyone is as snarky and bitter as Alice. You can't have your black-hearted comedy and your introspective yoga classes. Is it really a stride forward for feminism that the clueless single woman has taken the place of the stoner man-child in media today? When Lola tells Luke "I'm taken by myself. I've gotta just do me for a while " it's true. But it doesn't sound true and it doesn't feel true.
In one scene Lola stumbles on the sidewalk and falls to the ground. No one asks her if she's okay or needs help; she simply gets up on her own and goes on her way. It's a moment that has happened to so many people. It's humiliating and so very public but of course you just gotta pick yourself up and get where you're going. In this movie it's a head-smackingly obvious metaphor. In one of the biggest missteps of the movie Jay Pharoah plays a bartender that makes the occasional joke while Lola is waiting tables at her mom's restaurant. His big line at the end is "And I'm your friend who's black!" It would have been better to leave his entire character on the cutting room floor than attempt such a half-hearted wink at the audience.
Lister-Jones and director Daryl Wein co-wrote the screenplay for Lola Versus as they did with 2009's Breaking Upwards. Both films deal with the ins and outs of their own romantic relationship in one way or another. Breaking Upwards a micro-budget indie about a rough patch in their relationship was much more successful in tone and direction. Lola Versus has its seeds in Lister-Jones' experience as a single woman in New York and is a little bit farther removed from their experiences. Lola Versus feels like a wasted opportunity. Relatively speaking there are so few movies getting made with a female writer or co-writer that it almost feels like a betrayal to see such a tone-deaf portrayal of women onscreen. What makes it even more disappointing is how smart and likable everyone involved is and knowing that they could have made a better movie.
A loosely based remake of the 1963 Stanley Donen classic Charade? Sure The Truth About Charlie sounds good on paper. In the updated version Regina Lambert (Thandie Newton) is a sweet unassuming woman who decides to end her 3-month whirlwind marriage to playboy Charles Lambert (Stephen Dillane). Returning to Paris from vacation she gets to their apartment and finds it empty--except for Paris Police Commandant Dominique (Christine Boisson) whose been waiting for Reggie to inform her Charlie has been murdered and question her. Suddenly Reggie's world comes to a screeching halt. First there's American embassy official Mr. Bartholomew (Tim Robbins) who warns her about the danger she is in. Then she's followed by three oddballs-: Il-sang Lee (Joong-Hoon Park) Emil Zadapec (Ted Levine) and Lola Jansco (Lisa Gay Hamilton) who claim Charlie stole about $6 million from them. Her only ally seems to be Joshua Peters (Mark Wahlberg) a seemingly innocent guy she meets on vacation and then in Paris always happens to be there at the right time. Thrust into the middle of the puzzle Reggie has to piece together exactly what happened to her husband where the money is and more importantly who the heck she can trust. The story seems to flow nicely but you simply get bored midway through the film. There's just not enough intrigue to carry it out to fruition.
The 1963 Charade wasn't the best script out there either. It tended to drag but what made the film become an enduring classic was the on-screen pairing of Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. Together they had enough style and class to enlighten any mediocre script. Unfortunately Newton and Wahlberg pale in comparison--Hepburn and Grant they are not. Without a doubt the camera loves Newton and she's very appealing as the lost Regina trying to get a semblance of her life back. She has a fluidity which keeps your attention. And she could have easily had sparks with any another actor but with Wahlberg it's a complete wash. Writer/director Jonathan Demme makes the character Peters more of a Boy Scout rather than a suave sophisticate. Yes Wahlberg can do a role like this with his eyes closed but the part also requires that certain je ne sais quoi--and he just doesn't have it. The actor actually weighs the film down whenever he is on the screen. The supporting cast almost makes up for it especially Levine (The Silence of the Lambs) Joong-Hoon and Hamilton (Beloved) as the strange trio after the pot of gold. Robbins has a fairly nondescript part throughout most of the film but manages to make it solid when it counts.
Jonathan Demme definitely has a quirky sensibility that makes his films very entertaining to watch. He has been out of the limelight since his 1998 Beloved which was a much more classically structured film as was his Academy Award-winning Silence of the Lambs. But I remember his off-the-wall beginnings with Something Wild and Married to the Mob and am very happy to see Demme's unique style return in Charlie. To be honest it's what the saves the film from being a total yawner. He simply adores his surroundings shooting Paris much like New Wave directors of the '60s and '70s such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard and you can tell Demme is inspired by them. There are strange ethereal characters popping up in Reggie's view--a widow dressed in black by a bridge a saggy-faced woman at the market--which keeps the action off-kilter. Unlike the romantic Paris of Charade Demme goes into the seedier side of the city while still capturing its charm. The director also incorporates some of France's cinematic and cultural royalty including actress Anna Karina who made several films with Godard and Charles Aznavour a international singer/composer. The quirks definitely work.