'How to Be Single'
‘How to Be Single’ is a movie that can’t quite decide what it wants to be. Is it a story about learning to love being alone or learning that it’s actually important to fall in love? Is it a raunchy comedy or an earnest drama? Is it set in reality or Hollywood fantasy? Is it progressive or formulaic? Thanks to a sprawling ensemble cast that never quite congeals, the overstuffed movie is all of these things all at once, and as a result, actually none of them.
In the end, it’s a movie that was likely rewritten endlessly in development to suit different cast members, directors and shifting genre trends until it ended up one big muddled mess with a few highlights to remind everyone that they could be watching something better.
Dakota Johnson stars as Alice, the type of girl who has always been in a relationship but decides to finally go single when she moves to New York. After getting a job at a law firm, she meets Rebel Wilson’s wild child Robin, who treats life like a party and never wakes up in the same bed if she can help it. Leslie Mann plays Johnson’s sister, an OB/GYN who put her career above her love life and decided not to have children until she finally looked into a baby’s eyes for five consecutive minutes. (Weird that it took so long given that she works around infants constantly, but don’t go expecting reality here.)
Allison Brie plays the requisite marriage-obsessed single gal who frightens off guys with her dating site spreadsheets. She’s only loosely connected to Alice’s plot because they occasionally hang out in the same bar, which is run by a ladies’ man so determined to stay out of relationships that he doesn’t even have running water in his apartment. (Again, don’t expect reality.) Nicholas Braun plays Alice’s needy ex, Damon Wayans Jr. pops up as a rich single father, Jason Mantzoukas plays yet another love interest/book store owner, Jake Lacy plays one more dorky love interest, and… whew! Just listing off all these characters is exhausting. Imagine the challenge of giving them all satisfying storylines in less than two hours.
The truth of the matter is that no one really gets a satisfying storyline; there’s just not enough time for that. Instead, the audience is treated to snippets of various potential rom-coms, some of which would be better in feature length and some of which are too long as it is. The best threads are the purely comedic ones. Rebel Wilson is hysterical as a very Rebel Wilson like character. Rude and raunchy yet completely free and unashamed in inspiring ways, she’s a real spark of life and is one of the few characters who doesn’t need to land in a relationship by the end to be happy. That’s why it’s a shame that she essentially has no arc or storyline. She’s just there to spice things up whenever the other plots get boring, which happens often. Leslie Mann is also her dependably charming and hilarious self with a plot that’s sweet, satisfying and unconventional. However, it’s so rushed that it doesn’t offer the emotional heft it should.
Allison Brie tries incredibly hard to squeeze every drop of comedic potential out of her character and delivers some funny sequences of mental breakdowns and semi-stalking, but she also appears so little that her character never stretches beyond a single note, even when she’s theoretically supposed to grow. Unfortunately, Dakota Johnson gets most of the screen time. Not that Johnson is a bad actress (she does her usual “quietly frazzled” thing just fine), more that her character is so boring and lifeless compared to everyone else. She’s just a dull gal with dull dreams and a series of boring male suitors with personalities even thinner than the central gal pals. Admittedly, her story at least ends without tediously predictable grand romantic gestures, but it’s still always annoying when the least interesting character in a sprawling ensemble is the narrative anchor.
There are a few pleasant elements in ‘How to Be Single’. A few big laughs pop up (usually involving noted improvisers Wilson and Mann, likely not a coincidence) and the movie doesn’t force coupling conclusions onto everyone, suggesting that (gasp!) being alone can be satisfying. These are nice things, even somewhat progressive by the tedious standards of Hollywood rom-coms. The trouble is that the good bits are surrounded by the same nonsense that has been seen in these sorts of movies a million times before. Grating monologues explaining dating rules are ranted endlessly, New York is flaunted as a dating mecca like it has been a million times before, love triangles form without reason, characters bump into each other purely out of narrative convenience, and no one in the ensemble is satisfyingly developed in favor of cramming in even more characters.
It’s like being force fed random sequences pulled from five rom-coms of varying quality and being asked to make sense of it. The movie would have been infinitely better with a tighter focus and tonal consistency. Granted, it wouldn’t have been as easy to sell as a ‘Sex & the City’ clone, but at least it could have had an identity and purpose. These things help.