There is no justifiable excuse for How to Be Single to work as well as it does. Its source material is a tepidly received 2008 book by the co-writer of He’s Just Not That Into You, another lukewarm literary entity that was turned into a middling movie adaption. The screenplay was written by the same team who wrote said middling adaptation – and who also contributed to Valentine’s Day and The Vow. The director is a German import known for goofy magic-realism. Surely this was a recipe for disaster, and yet all these elements fuse to create a film that, in spite of its occasional leanings on the too-cute rom-com crutches, is bright and energetic and funny and kinda refreshingly smart about itself. It’s such a weirdly positive outcome that I question why this smile is still plastered on my face.
Pitched as the latest female-centered-but-non-Paul Feig-directed raucous R-rated comedy, in execution the movie sort of functions like that – there’s plenty of blunt sexualized dialogue, raunchy gags, and scenes in which Rebel Wilson is unleashed to ad-lib her way from point A to B – but it also has a quieter, more contemplative side that allows the characters to center themselves outside of the surface farce.
Dakota Johnson plays Alice, who has just moved to New York City after breaking up with her longtime boyfriend. She initiated the separation because she felt they both needed to “discover who they really are.” She moves in with her older sister, Meg (Leslie Mann), a doctor whose career is her life partner. And yet even though she is perfectly independent and thoroughly set in her ways, Meg suddenly and unexpectedly gets the pull to become a mother. Not necessarily anyone’s wife or girlfriend, but a mother. Meanwhile, Alice’s quest for self-exploration detours into an exploration of casually promiscuous NYC singledom via co-worker Robin (Wilson), who has a crazy theory for everything from the total number of drinks two people must consume before sex becomes inevitable to the appropriate workplace rooms to shag in.
In fact, theories abound among the ensemble in How to Be Single – at times it veers a little too closely to hipsterdom to be taken seriously. Lucy (Alison Brie) has gone so far as to develop a quasi-algorithm for calculating the true percentage of eligible single men in New York, while bartender Tom (Anders Holm) has rendered casual hook-ups down to a science (e.g., he makes it impossible for women to spend the night by not stocking breakfast ingredients in his fridge and keeps bottled water in a hidden bedside compartment — hee-hee). Though it freely rips on the suppressive conventions of pop culture standouts like Bridget Jones’s Diary and Sex and the City, the film still clings to some of the same reductive tropes. Its self-awareness, however, is a sneaking sign of genre progress. The fact that these characters are funny and likable also assists in that regard.
How to Be Single is funny like that – on the one hand it can’t help but embrace some of the standard rom-com trappings, but on the other it understands how silly and fleeting they are. Similarly, all of these characters could be perceived as specific types, yet the combination of writing and performance creates something unique in each. Alice is a naïve wanderer who’s addicted to love, Robin a reckless party girl, Meg an overly independent workaholic, Lucy a know-it-all who can break down the clichés or love but nevertheless fall into them. Simple enough, yet there are singular emotional paths for each of them, defined by their individual needs and the realities of the modern dating world they inhabit.
There are moments of surprising humanity in this screenplay, written with panache by Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein, and Dana Fox, and brought to life by a troupe of actors who know how to mine pathos. Director Christian Ditter enhances the material with unexpected style; his whirling camera, intentional focus dips, quirky mise en scene, and vibrant set lighting are uniquely European. In this very American genre that typically emphasizes broad gags and high concepts over characters, setting, and style, Ditter creates a sense of place for his characters, both geographically and emotionally. The slice of New York City portrayed here isn’t necessarily realistic, but it is very uniquely the New York City of this movie, of these characters. It is their home, their canvas on a search for themselves. Because in the final analysis, this isn’t a relationship movie at all. The “Single” in How to Be Single revolves around the person, the individual. And after enough crazy nights, enough stupid mistakes, enough crushing heartbreaks, these people may just accomplish Alice’s goal – discover who they really are.