In terms of the messages being imparted to the young women who will see it with their friends this Valentine’s Day weekend, How To Be Single marks a positive step forward for the romantic comedy. Unlike the ultimately rather conservative Trainwreck, at the end of this movie some characters end up happy in relationships, and some end up truly happy on their own. Learning to enjoy one’s own company is valued as much as learning the real meaning of intimacy, and casual sex (of the heterosexual, vanilla sort) is portrayed as a simple fact of life that is nothing to be ashamed of. The most promiscuous character is played by a plus-sized woman, and her weight is barely mentioned, let alone used as a punchline. For a Hollywood studio comedy, all these things are quite progressive. Unfortunately, though, the cinematic vessel containing all this sex- and body positivity is full of holes.
Dakota Johnson stars as Alice, a recent college graduate who breaks up with her longtime boyfriend Josh (Nicholas Braun) so she can ”spend some time alone” and “figure out who [she is].” She then moves to New York, home of cinematic searching single people, where she gets a job as a paralegal. There, she meets Robin (Rebel Wilson), the wild card to Alice’s straight woman, a dedicated party girl whose goal in life is to add as many numbers to her little black book as possible. (Just kidding. She would never call the same man twice.) Outgoing Robin immediately begins initiating shy Alice in the ways of singledom, which by Robin’s definition means never paying for drinks and going home only to shower. This brings them into the orbit of playboy bartender Tom (Anders Holm), whose bar uptight, marriage-minded serial online dater Lucy (Alison Brie) treats like her living room. Alice’s type A, terminally single obstetrician sister Meg (Leslie Mann), meanwhile, does not approve but loves her sister unconditionally anyway.
And that’s just the setup. By the end of the movie, several more characters, including Damon Wayans Jr. as a sensitive single father and Jason Mantzoukas as a loyal bookstore owner, will enter the fray. Laid out on a map, these characters would be scattered all over the place; all relate to another character in at least one way, but there is no one character that unites them all. As a result, the film can feel very disjointed, a problem exacerbated by sudden, jerky jumps forward in time, some based around holidays, some not. How To Be Single was adapted from a novel by Liz Tuccillo, about a thirtysomething book publicist who quit her job to travel the world and interview women about their experiences flying solo. None of that’s in here, but the movie still feels like an overstuffed adaptation of material that worked better on the page.
There are some sharply observed little moments that anyone who’s lived alone will recognize: Johnson lamenting that she’s not ready to be alone because she doesn’t know how to fix her own wi-fi, for example, or ongoing visual metaphors about learning to unzip one’s own dress or enjoy sleeping alone. Those may have been lifted from the book (full disclosure—this writer hasn’t read it), or they may have been the work of co-screenwriters Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein, and Dana Fox, all rom-com veterans. Less effective are forced, overly clever asides where characters explain their four-, or six-, or whatever point system for curing a hangover or getting hookups to leave their apartment, accompanied by Scott Pilgrim-style glowing onscreen graphics.
All of our leads are playing very much to type, which actually works to their benefit: Wilson gets some big laughs using her physical comedy skills, like a bit where a joint gets stuck in her hair and another where she wiggles out of the back window of a taxicab. Johnson is in her signature aw-shucks mode—which really isn’t an insult, she’s quite good at it—and Brie is well cast as a wide-eyed stalker, particularly in the scene where she presents Paul (Colin Jost), a guy she’s been dating for three weeks, with a photo album full of pictures of “us.”
Still, though, it’s exactly what you’d expect from them, and therefore nothing all that special. The same could be said for the location: Although director Christian Ditter does a fine job evoking the characters’ Big Apple stomping grounds, it would be nice to see a Hollywood comedy about young single people in Chicago, or Portland, or Austin—anywhere but New York, really. You might say that How To Be Single suffers from the influence of its older, more put-together sister Sex And The City, right down to the sappy montage and voice-over it needs to tie everything together at the end.