||Alan Hruska’s “Nola” is less interesting as a movie than as a labor of love by a writer-director who came to filmmaking after a long career in the law. The story of a young Midwestern woman who flees her abusive stepfather to seek fame as a singer--as well as her long-lost father--in New York City comes across as a throwback, a candy-colored fairy-tale that would have been more comfortable in the 1950s than the first decade of a new millennium.
Once Nola, played by Emmy Rossum, an actress whose career seems to be taking off in a big way (she has several films nearing release, some major Hollywood productions), arrives in the Big Apple, she quickly secures a job as a waitress in small diner with the help of an amiable street vendor. She also catches the eye of the diner’s cook Ben (James Badge Dale), a law student who invites her to share his upstairs room platonically while she finds a place of her own, and its owner Margaret (Mary McDonnell), the well-heeled owner of a upper-class escort service, who offers her a job (as well as room and board) as her executive assistant. Trouble arises when one of Margaret’s clients, Niles (Thom Christopher), a rich businessman whose inclinations lean toward the kinky, is assaulted by one of her stable and demands revenge. Nola tries to satisfy him with fake photos of the escort after a supposed beating, but when he discovers the chicanery the fellow sics his political minions against the whole operation. Help arrives in the form of Ben, who puts his legal expertise to work on Margaret’s behalf, and Leo (Steven Bauer), a veteran investigative reporter (and old flame of Margaret’s) who aids Ben to save our heroine from Niles’s horrible clutches.
As this account suggests, “Nola” is rather like a poor cousin of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Butterfield 8” to which a Frank Capra-style happy ending has been added. It doesn’t have a shred of plausibility, but viewers with a hankering for old-fashioned melodrama might find it a nostalgia trip worth taking. Rossum exhibits some natural charm and a good singing voice in the title role, but she often looks stiff and uncomfortable, while McDonnell is arch as the high-priced, unconventional madame. Dale has an easygoing presence and Bauer does his usual smooth routine, but Christopher just snarls comically as the villainous bad-guy, and Hruska sticks him with a final scene that goes way beyond embarrassing. From the production standpoint, the picture looks fine for a small-budget effort, making good use of the New York locations.
For a first effort, “Nola” isn’t a disgrace, but it is an anemic little paean to a type of Hollywood storytelling that would have been better left undisturbed.