For a genre whose key demographic is women, romantic comedies are often heavily male-centric. So when How to Be Single was being advertised, they focused on the fact that this was going to be a rom-com from the female perspective. And what more, it was going to lampoon all those silly notions about romantic love being the solution to all life’s problems. It was going to celebrate the single life. Unfortunately, How to Be Single is a lot more beholden to it’s rom-com tropes than it would like to believe.
While the film is something of an ensemble piece, its main story centers around Alice (Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey), who leaves her boyfriend of four years, Josh (Nicholas Braun, Perks of Being a Wallflower) to be single in New York City for a while, where she meets a number of beautiful people who all have their own prospective on romance. There’s Alice’s sister Meg (Leslie Mann, This is 40), a career doctor who’s beginning to crave the family she’s always been too busy for. There’s Robin (Rebel Wilson, Pitch Perfect), Alice’s party animal co-worker whose idea of being single is a walking tour of NYC’s many bars and many bedrooms. She takes Alice to her favorite watering hole where we meet Tom the bartender (Anders Holm, Workaholics), who has engineered the one night stand down to a science, and Lucy (Alison Brie, Community) a woman looking for love algorithmically online.
As you might imagine, what unfolds over the film’s nearly two hour run time is a journey that sees each character gain new perspective on love. It’s difficult not to be cynical about How to Be Single, but the film invites it. The film’s script, which unsurprisingly has three authors (Abby Kohn – The Vow, Marc Silverstein – The Vow, and Dana Fox – Couple’s Retreat) wants desperately to be surprising and savvy, but it also insists on playing into the tropes it’s critiquing, as though pointing out how cliched its plot is gives it a right to be cliched. Which is a shame since the film comes close to being clever a number of times. Director Christian Ditter (Love, Rosie) simply tries to cover too much ground.
With so many storylines to juggle, the film fails to investigate anything in depth. Complex relationships get whittled down to moments. Leslie Mann is perhaps the largest victim of the film’s short attention span. Her character goes from hating children, to wanting one, to finding a sperm donor in less than five minutes of screen time. And that’s before she meets the much younger Ken (Jake Lacy, Carol), who just happens to want exactly what she wants.
Things come together and fall apart way too quickly as the film lurches in different directions narratively and tonally. In one of the film’s clunkiest moments, Alice starts dating a man she meets at a reunion (Damon Wayans Jr., Lets be Cops) when the film jumps ahead three months and we find out he’s a widower with a child. Because being a widower is another way to be single, get it? The film is filled with these storylines that feel halfhearted and occasionally tone deaf.
It’s not all bad news. The majority of the cast gets a lot of mileage out of what they’re given to work with. Leslie Mann and Jake Lacy have some of the film’s best scenes playing characters begging for more screen time. Alison Brie is charming if somewhat manic, which has become her trademark character, and, Anders Holm keeps the eye rolls to a minimum, even though he’s essentially playing a two dimensional version of Barney Stinson, Neal Patrick Harris’s role in How I Met Your Mother. Rebel Wilson does what we’ve come to expect from her, and the film uses her more sparingly than its advertising would suggest, but Robin is more of a spirit animal than an actual person. Dakota Johnson’s Alice is about as vanilla as a protagonist can be, but when the protagonist’s emotional arc is discovering that they don’t truly know themselves, you can’t really blame the actress.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
If How to Be Single is successful at one thing, it is this: it doesn’t judge any of protagonists for the choices they make. If you’re looking for casual sex, that’s fine; if you’re looking to get married, that’s fine too. There’s definitely a positive message in that, but it’s diluted by a clumsy film that can’t decide on how cynical or earnest it wants to be. The one thing it does plant its foot on is the fact that you can’t remain single forever. Even Rebel Wilson’s character acknowledges that one day she’s going to settle down. So in the end, the film does answer the question How to be Single: temporarily. I don’t think that’s the progressive message they were going for.