In 2013, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha was released to general acclaim, from critics and most who went to see it (not everyone, with the list of those not convinced including the person who’s the reason I’m writing this in the first place pleasedon’thurtme). It was also a minor breakthrough for its co-writer/lead Greta Gerwig, who had previously been a mumblecore starlet, then an actor in some well-received but underseen indies (the delightful Damsels in Distress among them), and finally the “girlfriend/best friend” character in Hollywood and elsewhere (the decidedly not delightful No Strings Attached and Arthur among them). Frances seemed to indicate a step in a more artistically satisfying direction for Gerwig, at least until she got a job on the How I Met Your Mother spin-off (although that’s apparently dead). But what few people recognize is that Frances Ha requires context, in the form of a previous film in Gerwig’s filmography. It is called Lola Versus, and if you didn’t like Frances Ha, oh boy, you are not in for a treat with this one.
Lola Versus came and went without much of a trace back in 2012. It got some bad reviews (including one from Comrade Scott Tobias) and some mediocre ones (including one from our Holy Father Roger Ebert), and it made $252,603 at the box office. Why was it swept under the rug? Short answer; because it sucks. Despite coming out a full year before Frances, it strongly resembles a Frances Ha for Dummies knock-off, except with that film’s star in the lead. Once you know them, the similarities between both are very hard to ignore.
Within the first five minutes of Frances Ha, we see Frances and her best friend Sophie in their natural habitat, continuing inside jokes, being goofy, and just being friends. When we first see Frances sans Sophie, it’s with a boyfriend who wants Frances to movie in with him. He’s even considering getting a hypoallergenic cat to not activate Frances’ cat allergies! But Frances’ lease with Sophie isn’t done yet, and she would like to finish it out. When she says this, the tone of their conversation goes from “Let’s start a life together!” to “Why don’t you like me anymore?” Their relationship is done the second Frances lets that slip. This guy never appears again in the movie, and why should he? It’s not like the movie is about him, or what an idiot Frances is for not moving in with him, or even Frances’ relationships with men, it’s about if and how Frances is going to get her life together, and with or without her friend.
Let’s compare that to the first five minutes of Lola Versus. Lola talks about how someday, all of her “shit” is coming to come back to her (this is illustrated by her shoes washing up on a beach, because subtlety) and how her horoscope informs her that Saturn will return to her place of birth on her birthday and turn her life upside down (once again, subtlety). But for the time being, Lola is on Cloud 9. Her boyfriend Luke (Joel Kinnaman, playing the Powerman in this scenario) and her are getting married! Sure, there are bad omens, like Luke’s post-coital masturbation, but it seems all is blissful for Lola. That is, until she walks in on Luke making a face generally reserved for witnesses of murders. The wedding is off, he says. The reason? Um, he sucks? Lola is heartbroken. She takes to eating ice cream (uggghhhhh) and being comforted by her best friend, Alice (Zoe Lister-Jones, more on her later). The rest of the movie, broken down to its bare bones, is “Will Lola get a man in time for the big 3-0?” Now, I’m sure a good movie can be made with that premise, just as a bad movie can be made with Frances Ha‘s premise (you might argue that a bad movie has already been made with the premise, and it’s called Frances Ha). But Lola has a much more conventional premise that’s been done endlessly before, and it’s not done well here. This movie is no different from your typical mediocre studio rom-com, except with more uses of the word “vagina”.
Lola and Frances were both written by their directors and stars. In Lola‘s case, the director is Daryl Wein, and the star is Zoe Lister-Jones. You can tell that Lister-Jones was a writer, because she gives her character the “best” quips. By best, I mean the ones which are supposed to be funny but fall flat on their face. Her lines resemble sitcom dialogue, and we’re talking less NewsRadio than 2 Broke Girls here. At some point, I started subconsciously hearing a laugh track whenever she said something. Despite the fact that Lister-Jones wants you to focus on her, Gerwig is the source of the movie’s two (2) laughs, which bookend the movie like drinks of water while you wander through a desert. She gives it her all here, despite being saddled with a character who never goes beyond a placeholder for a more interesting protagonist. Compare her and Alice to Frances and Sophie. The relationship between Frances and Sophie feels fleshed-out, full of little routines and gags that feel practiced over several years, not a few months before filming began. You get the feeling that they existed and were friends long before the cameras started rolling. Lola and Alice feel like they were put together by a frustrated screenwriter who combined two not-very-good scripts with very different protagonists into one bad script. Neither character works separately, and they definitely don’t work plopped next to each other.
I’ve gotten at how Lola Versus pales in comparison to Frances Ha, but I feel like I should talk about how it pales in comparison to any movie. Below are some of the film’s worst faults as a companion to Frances and otherwise, presented in list form.
– Being a horrible waste of much of its cast. Gerwig isn’t the only one out at sea here. Bill Pullman and Debra Winger play Lola’s parents, and they get very little to do at all, with Pullman’s biggest contribution being a line about how awesome the iPad is. Jay Pharoah won’t be going down in history as anyone’s favorite Saturday Night Live cast member, but he’s generally funny, and that capacity for humor is sorely underused here, to the point of nonexistence. Cheyenne Jackson has more of a presence in the gag reel than in the actual movie.
– One particularly out-of-place sequence, where Lola shacks up with a rollerskating creep with an obscenely large penis. To give an idea of how jarring this sequence is, it would be the equivalent of a scene where Frances wins the lottery in Frances Ha, except the lottery in this close is fucking a man with a bizarre, off-screen penis.
– The fact that despite Lola working as a waitress, she owns a loft which would make almost every other waitress in America insanely jealous. She’s the kind of person that Frances Ha implicitly mocked as being offensive to actual poor people by calling herself poor.
– People have complained about how Frances steals tricks from the French New Wave (plus a direct lift from Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang), but at least it’s trying to emulate something good (and personally, I wasn’t bothered by the lifts, which were mostly surface, just like I wasn’t bugged by Baumbach cribbing from Woody Allen in his early work and from Eric Rohmer and Robert Altman in his later work). Lola Versus feels like a combination of generic, predictable rom-com plotting and the annoying, smug, manufactured quirks of minor-major-studio “indies”.
It’s rare that two, seemingly-unrelated, movies complement each other so well (the only examples I can think of have more concrete connections, like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive). You can almost imagine Gerwig getting frustrated by Lola while she was making it, and writing the script to Frances as a reaction. I guess she needs to do more crap if we want more good stuff from her. Quick, someone give her a thankless role in some Hollywood schlock so we can get 2 Damsels 2 Distress!