Labored, artificial stab at ’40s/’50s-style romantic comedy, “Nola” abounds in theatrically overwritten repartee meant to sparkle with originality and sophistication. In his admitted desire to update Billy Wilder by making dialogue and characters more acerbic, lawyer-turned-writer/director Alan Hruska has coated old cliches with a thin veneer of new ones. “Nola” was picked up at Tribeca by Fireworks, probably banking on pic’s forced innocence, quirky wordplay and the up-and-coming status of star Emmy Rossum (she has featured roles in new Clint Eastwood and Roland Emmerich flicks).
After bashing her abusive stepdad over the head in an attempt to protect her drug-addicted mother, spunky Nola takes off for New York to find her unknown birth father. Fending off Central Park muggers with a knife, she falls into a job in a Greenwich Village coffee shop; at this point, context and character shift into a transparent reimagining of the Village bar and street-smart Debbie Reynolds persona of Robert Mulligan’s 1960 “Rat Race.”
Offered a couch in the apartment of co-worker Ben (James Badge Dale), a short-order cook and law student, Nola is instantly suspicious and defensive. Her doe-eyed, Audrey Hepburn-ish intelligence and vulnerability somehow must coexist with the snarling, knife-wielding updated variations, but Hruska gives Rossum little room or rationale to integrate the two Nolas.
Befriended by Margaret (Mary McDonnell), the high-class madam who owns the coffee shop, Nola becomes her administrative assistant and moves into her luxurious brownstone. Complications with a high-powered kinky client (Thom Christopher) threaten Nola and her boss, reuniting Margaret with her old flame Leo (Steven Bauer), and Nola with Ben. Together, the four rout the bigwig client in a courtroom showdown that cinches Ben’s wavering law career while vindicating Margaret’s freedom-of-choice brand of escort service, and, eventually, reveals the identity of Nola’s natural father.
Screwball elements feel overly theatrical — one can almost see the actors waiting calmly in the wings for their breathless entrances. The gears are evident throughout, as Hruska tweaks archetypes into stereotypes — for instance, making a fairy godmother out of a madam.
Characters’ problems are so artificial they can be resolved on the slightest pretext. Thus Nola’s long-simmering anger at her absentee father is summarily released in a slap, a chastising one-liner and a slightly deferred teary reunion.
Tech credits are of a piece with the tensionless, go-lightly approach.