How To Be Single has a lot of good ideas. It is, in fact, a pretty smart romantic comedy in some surprising ways. It recognizes that, for a long of people, casual sex is just… something that happens sometimes, neither inherently good nor inherently bad, depending on how and why you do it. It understands the difference in learning how to be by yourself and getting so comfortable being alone that you start shutting people out. It is shockingly empathetic about the different circumstances people find themselves in that may cause their relationships to fall apart. It doesn’t just touch on these on the road to a happy ending, either; on a fundamental level, How To Be Single is about the rewards and perils of being alone. It is as sharply observed a romantic comedy as has come around in a good little while.
I just wish it were also a good movie.
Which is not to say it’s bad. It isn’t. There’s a lot to like, as I’ll discuss soon. But How To Be Single makes a couple creative choices that really don’t hold together very well. Some I understand the necessity of, but don’t love the execution, as when the film skips ahead to the break-up every time Alice starts a new relationship; others, like the increasingly sprawling cast, are just flat-out mistakes. Funny, interesting, ambitious mistakes? Sure, sometimes. But they still don’t quite work.
In How To Be Single, Alice (Dakota Johnson) goes ‘on a break’ with longtime boyfriend Josh (Nicholas Braun) so she can learn who she is alone before settling down into marriage and adult life. She moves in with her caring, neurotic obstetrician sister Meg (Leslie Mann), who has decided to have a baby on her own shortly before getting entangled in her own dating woes. Alice quickly meets her mentor and newfound friend in Robin (Rebel Wilson), a brash receptionist who tutors her in how to party hard and live large as a single gal in New York City, which includes befriending Tom (Anders Holm), a local bartender who may be carrying a torch for Lucy (Alison Brie), an obsessive, uptight woman desperately seeking Mr. Right. And then there’s half-a-dozen other important characters circling Alice, Meg, and Lucy.
Which is kind of the problem. Lucy has no connection to Alice, Josh, Meg, or Robin; she’s just a girl at Tom’s bar. We see them flirt a little, but because she’s so disconnected from the rest of the film, any scene with Lucy and Tom are taking time away from the other, more fleshed-out stories; any scene with just Lucy is damn near a trainwreck. But, because of the time we spend with Lucy, things like Alice’s relationship with real estate developer David (Damon Wayans, Jr.) get short shrift, so when that relationship falls apart, we have no connection to David whatsoever and their fight feels totally phony. Same with Meg and her relationship with Ken (Jake Lacy), which has a few funny moments, mostly thanks to the truly daffy chemistry between Lacy and Mann, but mostly just feels like every turn it takes comes out of nowhere. While it’s fashionable to hate on Love, Actually, that was a movie that understood fundamentally how to balance the amount of time each story received with how much dramatic weight it would be asked to carry. How To Be Single barely pays that balance any sort of heed, and it is considerably weaker for it.
But it’s also kind of the solution. A movie like Trainwreck felt regressive because it demonized casual sex – or did it just demonize the fact that the way Amy was doing it wasn’t really making her happy anymore? There’s no way to know, as everyone else in the movie was pretty settled. By opening the story up as much as they have, screenwriters Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein, and Dana Fox can examine the nuance between ‘enough’ and ‘too much’, between ‘good’ and ‘good enough for right now’. This gives the ultimate message of the film a lot more kick than the typical romcom has, because How To Be Single genuinely shows an awareness of what it means to be healthy and happy as a single person.
Like the script, the direction is surprisingly ambitious for a fairly staid genre – and doesn’t always hold together. An invisible edit that takes us from an packed up apartment to an unpacked and organized one in a single turn of the character’s head is far more refreshing than the typical fade out would have been, and lets Johnson’s face sell the effort. One late film crane shot really stood out, taking a character with a single turn of the camera from the center of a huge rooftop party to feeling completely visually isolated, setting up the next scenes perfectly. But director Christian Ditter’s ambition sometimes gets the most of him, and some flourishes seem pointless. CGI numbers on beer bottles visually highlights a joke that we’re already being told both verbally and visually for seemingly no reason, for example; like the script, it’s excess without purpose.
Ultimately, I liked How To Be Single, which tries to breathe a little life into the moribund mainstream American romantic comedy. It’s ambitious and thoughtful and honestly even unpredictable. And, hell, it’s funny too; they push Rebel Wilson’s schtick too hard, but the punchline to an early film montage she led had most of the theater burst out laughing. Honestly, the movie has plenty to recommend it, particularly if you’re already a fan of the genre looking for a more progressive direction it might take (in small, lily white baby steps, of course, because sigh). But the clumsiness of the way some of the stories (particularly Brie’s) are integrated and the short shrift paid to some of the relationships in the film often make it a frustrated, disjointed viewing experience. It’s not that it’s bad; it’s that it is so easy to imagine better.
How To Be Single is out now in theaters everywhere. Written by Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein, and Dana Fox, and directed by Christian Ditter, How To Be Single stars Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Leslie Mann, and Alison Brie. Rated R for strong language and sexual content.