Tribeca Episode Four: The quirky and the cynical in US indie romcoms

Lola Versus, Free Samples and The Giant Mechanical Man

by Amber Wilkinson

Greta Gerwig in Lola Versus

Greta Gerwig in Lola Versus

I'd like to introduce you to romantic protagonists Lola (Lola Versus), Jillian (Free Samples) and Janice (The Giant Mechanical Man). But first, let's consider the environment they are born into...

The world of US indie film has always been a spawning ground for offbeat romcoms and romantic dramas. After all, there are few easier set-ups than a love triangle and shooting in the streets of New York or LA or in a pal or parents' loft space is a comparatively cheap option. Somewhere along the line, sparky dialogue between couples fell out of vogue in favour of concentrating on one or the other half of the pairing and increasingly, women in 'romantic/life crises' seem to be taking centre stage.

At the same time, there has been a shift in the way that the humour is presented, with almost every 'romcom' I've seen either at Tribeca Film Festival or Sundance in the past few years being stuck firmly on one of two settings - "whimsical" or "cynical".

The former category is epitomised by 500 Days Of Summer but also includes the likes of Meet Monica Velour, Celeste And Jessie Forever, and Giant Mechanical Man and Free Samples - more on both of which in a moment. Typical entries in the cynicism division, meanwhile, include Bridesmaids, Tiny Furniture, Bachelorette and - having its world premiere at Tribeca - Lola Versus.

Weixler and Ritter in Free Samples
Weixler and Ritter in Free Samples

While, smart scripting sometimes wins the the day, the trouble with both of these approaches is that most of us live in neither a wholly cynical nor achingly twee world, which means the characters have a tendency to be about as believable as a Lib Dem election pledge and almost impossible to relate to.

This is not to say that the acting is bad. Greta Gerwig, moving from ingenue to ingen-older, is very watchable as the lead in Lola Versus. But Lola is largely unsympathetic and trapped among supporting characters who lack a ring of truth. We meet her as, on her 29th birthday, her milquetoast boyfriend (Joel Kinnaman), proposes marriage, only to get cold feet seven months - or five minutes of runtime - later.

Lola, distraught and self-obsessed, then spends the rest of the film learning that oh-so-important-to-indie-romance lesson that you don't need a man to make you happy. She does this, of course, by first falling into the arms of any man going, including the mutual best friend that she shares with her ex (Hamish Linklater, whose character is the closest thing to a real person here).

Although lifted periodically by the affable presence of Bill Pullman as Lola's dad, little of the humour sticks and the dialogue is peppered with lines that are both crass and unbelievable. When Lola's pal Alice (Zoe Lister-Jones, who co-wrote so has no excuse) says she's going to: "Wash her vagina", it's neither funny nor shocking, just incongruous and trying too hard. And if Lola gets sick of herself before the end of the runtime, we're well ahead of her in that department.

And so, to the quirky end of the spectrum, where an antiheroine toys with whimsy in the hopes of raking in a few laughs. Jess Weixler is Jillian, another twentysomething in an early midlife slump, who finds herself in charge of an ice-cream van for a day as a favour to a friend. Because the nature of such films is that the miserable must find redemption, she is accosted not so much by a cast of characters as by a litany of quirks.

Weixler tries incredibly hard to find some emotional depth in her character... but you can't dive into a petri dish. Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Ritter also do their best to breathe some life into their one-note, against-type roles - the latter is a schlub who (hold onto your sides now) just wants to serve ice-cream with no trousers on and pees on sofas, while the former might as well come with a sign on his forehead marked 'eligible boyfriend material'. By far the best thing in Free Samples, however, despite also being forced to have a 'quirky' walk, is Tippi Hedren. Her brief scenes as a former Hollywood golden girl explores ideas of ageing and love in a way that is sorely absent elsewhere.

Which brings me to what, I think on balance, is the best of this particular bunch at Tribeca - The Giant Mechanical Man. Although Lee Kirk's debut is also a bit too quirky for its own good, and features rather too much heavy-handed philosophising and some cartoonish supporting characters (Topher Grace? Least said, soonest mended), it is nevertheless warm-hearted and features two leads who feel realistic, fresh and - perhaps most importantly - likeable.

Fischer and Messina in The Giant Mechanical Man
Fischer and Messina in The Giant Mechanical Man

Unlike those moaners Lola and Jillian, Janice (Jenna Fischer) is having trouble articulating her not-quite-midlife crisis. Stuck in a series of dead-end temping jobs, her dreamy tendencies leave her jobless, homeless and reliant on her driven-to-win-even-if-you-have-to-marry-to-do-it sister. Street performer Tim (Chris Messina) has also hit the rocks. His girlfriend (Lucy Punch) has had enough of his face-painting-and-stilts giant mechanical man act.

As Tim and Janice hit a cash-flow crisis they take jobs at the local zoo, where unexpected romance starts to bloom. Kirk's real-life wife Fischer is pitch perfect as Janice, finding the soulfulness in her silence of a woman desperate for change but unsure how to make it happen. She is matched step-for-step by Messina, who brings out a subtlety and depth in what initially feels like it could be a one-dimensional character. Not perfect, perhaps, but it has soul and its heart is in the right place.

In general, though, I still can't help feeling that even though women seem to get 'better' roles in romcoms these days far too much of the fun has gone out of the funny business.

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