2016 - 110 minutes
Directed by: Christian Ditter
Written by: Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein, Dana Fox
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Alison Brie, Leslie Mann, Damon Wayans Jr., Anders Holm, Nicholas Braun, Jake Lacy
How to Be Single doesn’t completely subvert the contemporary rom-com conventions, but it tweaks them just enough to be consistently enjoyable despite not being overtly romantic or side-splittingly hilarious. Though running a little long, likeable characters operating in relatable (if heightened) situations make the soppy elements more believable and the various plot diversions more palatable, even for someone clearly not in the target audience, like yours truly.
The lack of a singular clear romantic goal for our young, smart, pretty protagonist actually helps us connect with the material that doesn’t pretend there’s a completely clean, canned happily ever after. If it feels episodic, that’s because the episodes inform the character.
Alice (Dakota Johnson) takes a break from college boyfriend Josh (Nicholas Braun) so she can focus on her new job and experience life in New York. She wastes little time getting crazy, making friends with rowdy coworker Robin (Rebel Wilson), hits a bar after her first day of work, and has a tryst with womanizing bartender Tom (Anders Holm). Tom, meanwhile, is intrigued by the anxious Lucy (Alison Brie), who is methodically planning to find her soulmate. Alice’s older sister Meg (Leslie Mann) is an obstetrician who longs to have a baby herself and turns to IVF before meeting young buck – and another of Alice’s coworkers – Ken (Jake Lacy).
Not shying away from obvious comparisons, How to Be Single directly references Sex and the City and Bridget Jones’s Diary – not in a post-modern, trying-desperately-to-be-hip way, but just acknowledging the media that catered to these characters and the romantic notions that they are rebelling against. And there’s a lot of restlessness to sort through. Though occasionally the editing between plot strings is a little wobbly, particularly with Brie’s character who feels at times like an import from a different movie, director Christian Ditter makes everything easy to sort through.
Aside from Lucy (who Brie makes sweet enough considering her circumstances), the right amount of emphasis is given to the various players. Rebel Wilson does her typical wacky shtick, which fine and funny in small doses, and Mann is, as usual, effortlessly charming as a woman smiling through a difficult quest for work-life balance.
Whatever is going on with the supporting players, Alice always remains our entry point and through line, with Johnson managing to stay appealing despite some pretty terrible choices. In our time with her she wishes for a romantic break, has a quick hookup, gets involved for a time with successful single dad David (Damon Wayans Jr.), and decides she really is ready to get back with Josh. Part of the learning process is that the world doesn’t always wait for you to decide what you want, and those ideas work here.
The break-ups, make-ups, and hook-ups help save How to Be Single from getting too introspective, while Alice’s charm and various musings on life in the city save it from being a forced comedic romp. There’s a nice balance between the observant and the playful that helps retain an air of credibility – Alice even lives in an age/career level appropriate apartment in NYC.
At times the screenplay (credited to a trio of writers and based on the book by Liz Tuccillo) strains to create a unique parlance – as with placing an exact number of drinks that can be had by a couple before it becomes a certainly they will sleep together, which, of course, makes no sense, but the haughtiness isn’t pushed too aggressively. The point is working through all the hassles, big and small, in a way that’s meaningful. Alice is not saved by a man or her network of girlfriends. Sometimes you’ve just gotta figure stuff out on your own, and acknowledging that helps make How to Be Single feel a bit more honest.