SIFF Review: Lola Versus

2012 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
89 minutes

***

Sometimes, in the course of writing about a movie I liked, I come to find that my first impression might have been hasty. Ostensibly, “Lola Versus” follows the long-overdue trend of Rom Com re-invention pioneered by “Bridesmaids” and HBO’s “Girls.” But I’m beginning to wonder if the movie only works so well because of Greta Gerwig in the titular role. The moment that planted this seed of doubt in my brain occurred when, at the post-screening Q&A, scribes Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones identified the city of New York as “a character in the film.” (Note to people who make films in New York: We get it. You love your city. Now please shut up about it.) If the writers would say something so pretentious and cliché about their film, perhaps it’s not really as groundbreaking as it seems. Nonetheless, Gerwig’s congeniality and omnipresence are clearly enough to distract from the film’s problems.

Lola is a 29-year-old post-doc student who is bursting with contentment in her New York loft that she shares with Luke, her handsome artist fiancé. But when Luke abruptly calls off the wedding, Lola finds her once-perfect world in upheaval. As a result, she finds herself at odds with the world as she descends into a shame spiral of binge eating, extreme cleansing and sexual rebounding. Much of Lola’s floundering would be tedious in the hands of a conventional actress (like a Heigl or a J-Lo). I don’t know how versatile Gerwig is, but she’s damned good at playing affably troubled women.

There are many “versus” with whom Lola is contending. But the appalling double standard regarding oat sewing is one of the big ones. After two of her paramours run into each other, Lola is blindsided by admonition. “I’m slutty, but I’m a good person,” she protests. Even in these sexually liberal modern timey times, nice women are not supposed to have meaningless sex. If a man doesn’t say, “let’s be exclusive,” he’s not her boyfriend and is therefore free to have his cake and eat hers too (cake being a metaphor for lady junk). But if a woman has sex with a man once, they are dating unless he explicitly says they aren’t.

There are other genuinely astute observations in “Lola Versus.” Many involve affectionate ridicule of hipster culture (Lola binges on rice chips. A man at the butcher shop asks in-depth questions about the origins of their meat). Lola’s scenes with the embodiment of nightmare dates (played to the hilt by Ebon Moss-Bachrach) will be cringingly familiar for much of the female audience. These elements make it seem miles apart from the vacuous Rom Coms that trivialize romantic relationships. But Lola still has a male best-friend-turned love interest (Hamish Linklater, doing his best with a generic character). She also has a piss and vinegar-laden female best friend, Alice (Lister-Jones), who dispenses love advice amidst her own romantic failures. Alice also furnishes the film with saucy jokes because you can’t have a comedy about modern women without someone casually mentioning their vaginal hygiene. I’m sure a lot of people will find her character delightfully irreverent, but I’m getting a little tired of that schtick. Why does a normalish female protagonist always have to surround herself with snark robots?

If you ask me, Lola gets a little screwed over by her friends who are at least partially responsible for driving her to the brink of insanity. It’s hardly surprising given her limited social circle. With Luke out of the picture, she is left only with Henry and Alice for support. For a while, she finds solace with Henry until he confesses to having a long time crush on her just when she is at her most vulnerable (one of the more realistic plot contrivances). She gets along with her parents but, despite their liberal leanings, they don’t have any advice beyond feeble parental platitudes. When Henry and Alice get sanctimonious toward the end of the film, Lola falls through her already weak safety net into an epic bender. However, the script never calls them on their friendship lapse, seemingly placing the blame entirely on Lola’s shoulders. This rubbed me the wrong way during the film and only continues to fester the more I mull it over.

At one point, Lola shares a revelation that the old adage about not being able to love others till you love yourself is backward. She won’t be able to love herself until she learns to love other people. For her sake, I hope she finds some lovable people soon.

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

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SIFF 2012 Review: Earthbound

2012 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
90 minutes

**

“Earthbound” is a bit of a Dr. Who riff on the hijinks of a lonely alien experiencing modern day Europe. Only, in this case, we’re kept guessing about whether Joe (Rafe Spall) is actually the man who fell to Earth or the one who flew over the cuckoo’s nest. His beliefs are the result of his father’s deathbed confession that the pair of them escaped from planet Zaxalon years ago to avoid death via the ritual sacrifice of an invading alien species. Joe must continue posing as a human to avoid Zalador’s ever-watchful bounty hunters. That’s a lot of heavy stuff to lay on an impressionable 11-year-old. A young boy has a hard enough time trying to fit in without the baggage of believing he’ll never live a normal human life because the entire fate of a species rests on his shoulders. So “Earthbound” is either about an orphaned alien in Dublin attempting to fulfill his destiny, or it’s about a young man who, thanks to his manic-depressive father, has been living a lonely, delusional life. Separately, either of these plots might have made really good films. But together, the two stories never gel. Writer/director, Alan Brennan, wastes so much time keeping us guessing that he forgets to develop his characters. By the time he reveals the truth, you’re no longer invested in the ending. You just want it to end.

On the bright side, the film maintains a light, campy tone that forgives many of its flaws. References to other comic book and sci-fi stories are so prevalent that it sometimes feels a bit like plagiarism. Joe is basically a reverse Superman as he is weakened, not strengthened by the Earth’s yellow sun. Thus, he has an endless list of allergies and ailments. His father provides beyond-the-grave guidance via a holographic database, bringing to mind Jor-El’s crystal messages in the Fortress of Solitude. These references also lend to the question of his sanity. Are the comics and movies really misinterpretations of the real deal? Or did pop culture help Joe flesh out his fantasy?

We see the story from Joe’s point of view so even though his sanity is constantly in question, we’re privy to plenty alien business. His paranoia regarding the bounty hunters keeps things suspenseful. Are those shifty fellows from H.R. just waiting for their moment to strike, or do they really just want to give Joe a promotion? Spall’s performance is endearing, channeling the joy, excitement and adoration for humanity that David Tennant displayed on Dr. Who. He’s not so much a force to be reckoned with as the 10th doctor, but he’s brave and determined. It’s mainly the romantic aspect of this Sci-Fi RomCom that falls short.

Joe has zero chemistry with his love interest, Maria (Jen Murray). Joe only decides to pursue her when the alien device on his wrist identifies her as a one-in-a-million genetic match for mating. Genetic compatibility is not quite the same thing as love at first sight. Maria’s attitude toward Joe seems to fluctuate between wariness and pity. He has to be very persistent to get her to go out with him. Even then, she only agrees because, as a last ditch effort, he happens to suggest one of her favorite activities (laser tag). Though they eventually move in together, Maria never really seems to like him all that much. Their relationship is, at best, a grammar school romance. Some of the blame may lie with the performances. I’ve never seen Jen Murray before so I don’t know if she’s always this bland. But I’m not sure even Billie Piper could have made the character endearing. Once Joe confesses his secret, Maria spends much of the rest of the film trying to get him committed. This one-in-a-million woman sure is a jerk.

Overall, I’d recommend spending a Sunday afternoon with “Earthbound.” But it’s definitely not marriage material.

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).