How to Be Single (2016) / Comedy-Romance
MPAA Rated: R for sexual content and strong language throughout
Running Time: 110 min.
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Leslie Mann, Anders Holm, Alison Brie, Jake Lacy, Damon Wayans Jr., Nicholas Braun, Jason Mantzoukas, Colin Jost
Director: Christian Ditter
Screenplay: Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein, Dana Fox (based on the book by Liz Tuccillo)
Review published February 14, 2016
Dakota Johnson (Black Mass, Fifty Shades of Grey) gets the lead role as Alice, who decides that she and her long-term college boyfriend Josh (Braun, Poltergeist) should break up for a while in order to experience what being single is actually like before they proceed through the rest of their lives together. She takes up a job as a paralegal in a law firm, where she meets the boisterous Robin (Wilson, Pitch Perfect 2), who shows her the ropes of the life of a single girl in New York City -- important things like never paying for drinks and not using an Emoji before returning a text (after waiting a day to even do it). Meanwhile, Alice's sister Meg (Mann, Vacation), a workaholic in the medical industry with no time for a relationship or starting a family, decides that, perhaps, it's time to rethink those notions. Unlike Meg, Lucy (Brie, Get Hard) is on a gaggle of dating sites trying to find the man with whom she'll marry and start a family with through a series of algorithms she's sure will be the path to success.
Directed by Christian Ditter (Love Rosie, The Crocodiles), some will immediately be reminded of the TV series, "Sex and the City", which will come as little surprise to those who know that the film is based on a 2008 book by Liz Tuccillo, who also wrote for "Sex and the City" on HBO. Perhaps the biggest problem with How to Be Single is that, unlike a series made for television, the screenplay from the team of Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (The Vow, He's Just Not That Into You), rewriting the original adaptation from Dana Fox (What Happens in Vegas, The Wedding Date), tries to cram a whole season's worth of characters and their on-again, off-again relationships in under two hours. The film feels like whole scenes had been chopped down or out entirely to get its run time down, with only the use of holidays to denote that time is actually passing by over the course of about a year instead of a couple of days. One scene has Meg's would-be suitor astonished to find her looking about eight months pregnant, stating, "I was wondering why you'd been avoiding me!" Dude, if your woman goes from not showing in your last date to ready to pop the next, despite the fact you've been (presumably) constantly trying to get together, she isn't just avoiding you -- she is actively wanting you out of her life.
As a result of the abbreviated manner in which relationships are built, we don't know these characters enough to care much when they look like they might find love, nor do we feel much heartbreak when we realize that they actually haven't. It's hard to reflect on our own lives through these characters when they're stuck in a tangled narrative that persistently relies on contrivances, coincidences, and forced humor to keep it all moving forward at a brisk enough pace to tie up the several story threads before the end credits roll. As with most rom-coms, it tries to find unique wrinkles to set it apart, such as a wholly illogical system of counting alcoholic drinks that suggest that once the cumulative amount of adult beverages has been consumed beyond the tolerance level, they'll be having sex that night. If the woman's limit is three and a man's is seven, they'll have sex when they've both consumed ten drinks between them. Under this system, even if the woman has zero drinks over the course of the evening, are we to believe that they'll have still sex if the man drinks 10 beers?
Nevertheless, it's not all bad. There are enough funny moments interspersed to keep the film working well as a 'girls-night-out' flick, and a few surprisingly poignant moments thrown in, most of them coming Dakota Johnson's ability to show convincing levels of vulnerability despite not being given much of a character to work with. Other than having a sister, we have no idea about having a life at all that might predate the first scene of this film; in fact, other than a revelation about Damon Wayans Jr.'s (Big Hero 6) single father character, pretty much all of these characters have no tangible history whatsoever, which gives us little insight as to who they are other than walking, talking stereotypes for us to instantly identify with because it's not our first time at the rom-com rodeo. She still sells her scenes, even though she's playing a bit of a dimwit. She partially desires Josh back in her life because he's handy enough to figure out how to use a TV remote for a technical problem a quick Google search on her part would have remedied in seconds. On the plus side, she does eventually find a way to unzip the backs of her own dresses...after several months.
And yet, it's all too familiar in the end for any who've seen their share of "single girls" comedies like the aforementioned "Sex and the City", Bridget Jones's Diary, or HBO's other hit in this regard, "Girls". Rebel Wilson is here for the pure comedy, but is essentially doing the thing Rebel Wilson always does, which is to make somewhat inappropriate comments, cavort like a DTF sexpot, and put her larger body out there for some broad physical humor. Mann is usually fun to watch, but the nature of her character doesn't lend well to comedy, and the relationship she has with younger guy Ken (Lacy, Love the Coopers), who seems to exist in this universe only as someone who is there for her whenever Meg deems herself worthy of love, is superficial and unconvincing. Alison Brie's Lucy feels mostly as an outlier to the rest of the cast, her only point of convergence being her friendship with Tom (Holm, The Intern), a skirt-chasing neighborhood bartender who also forms a casual sex partnership with Alice.
Even with a smattering of poignant moments or elements that touch on the trials and tribulations of not being in a relationship in this day and age, How To Be Single is more interested in trying to lake you laugh than in imparting any inspiration on why it's OK to not always be building up to the traditional dream of a spouse and kids above fulfilling oneself with education, travel and career opportunities first. The notion that you can't love another until you love yourself first seems too nuanced for a high-gloss commercial vehicle that would rather deliver breadth instead of depth, which leads to a film full of many characters and collections of little tidbits that we ultimately forget once the credits roll because we're never rooted enough to feel any urgency for the vapid lives of people who don't have their stuff together. Instead of trying to put a finger on the pulse of the dating world in 2016, it would rather use that finger to constantly poke at us, and prod us into laughter or tears through tried-and-true formula sitcom antics.
©2016 Vince Leo