How to Be Single immediately brought to mind a couple of other recent films that take a “real” look at love through the lens of an impossibly attractive ensemble cast. You know the ones. He’s Just Not That Into You. Valentine’s Day. Prom. Probably a few others that I’ve either already forgotten or never saw. But while How to Be Single is riddled with problems of its own, it does get points from me where those other films don’t: it’s sometimes funny, and occasionally real.
The set-up is almost too cliched to bother explaining. Alice (Dakota Johnson) is coming off a four-year relationship with Josh (Nicholas Braun) and moves to New York in hopes of “finding herself”. She moves in with her control freak older sister, Meg (Leslie Mann), and befriends her wild new colleague, Robin (Rebel Wilson). This all tenuously links into another side plot concerning Tom (Anders Holm), a lothario bar owner, and Lucy (Alison Brie), his supposedly “charming” and “wacky” upstairs tenant who loiters in his bar for the free wi-fi. Single people. New York. Hijinks.
After a rather dire first half hour spent establishing all of this, the film settles into something a little more interesting as the various relationships start to intertwine and the comedy starts to kick in. Yet, even though both the comedy and drama of this film are intermittently effective, they also never really stop feeling at odds with each other. One minute we’re forced to endure physical comedy gags about somebody dropping their laptop out a window and the next minute poor Dakota Johnson is trying her best to accurately portray the feelings of emptiness and confusion that plagues so many 20-somethings. The film mentions Bridget Jones’s Diary multiple times, which is clearly a strong influence, yet it doesn’t have the wit or the genuinely felt emotional punch to land within the same realm of that rom-com high-water mark.
Before I get too down on How to Be Single, though, I would like to say that it got a few things surprisingly right. It’s not reinventing the rom-com genre by any means, but it DOES semi-boldly reject some of the genre’s most tightly-held tropes. I did like how much emphasis it put on being your own independent person, rather than reinforcing the idea that you need to fall in love and find your “other half” in order to be complete. Especially towards the end of the film, it felt like they were really fighting against some of the traditional values of the genre, and it was refreshing to see a film that champions female friendship and independence over traditional romantic love. (I was pleased to see that two of the three screenwriters are female, and their perspective was very much welcome in a medium where the female voice is usually depressingly absent.)
However, if you’re looking for some great feminist message, this still isn’t going to be your film. I thought the Alison Brie role was especially problematic and just unpleasant, presenting Lucy as a borderline insane person who strikes one note over and over again. We learn nothing about Lucy other than that she’s love-obsessed, and her only two purposes in the film are 1) represent the butt-of-the-joke cliches that they didn’t want to saddle their other female characters with and 2) serve as the catalyst for change for one of the male characters. There are also some definite problems in the way they represent Rebel Wilson’s character in terms of her weight (though they’re certainly not the first film to do so), but Wilson is funny enough that (for better or worse) I found myself forgiving those issues more easily.
Most of the cast here deserves better. (Particularly Jake Lacey, who is given a thankless and bland “love interest” role but somehow still turns in a hugely charming performance.) However, How to Be Single at least tries to explore some different ideas, even if it doesn’t fully succeed at articulating them. I’d rather this kind of movie be moderately ambitious and fall short instead of skating by on the status quo. If you’re looking for a bit of light fun, you could do worse.