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Learning how to be yourself, to be comfortable in your own skin and on your own, is an important part of growing up and figuring out your way in the world. That’s the central conceit of Christian Ditter’s new film, How to be Single, and is also what sets it apart from typical romantic comedies. Most films in this genre define their characters by their romantic relationships, while this one defines them by their absence. It’s not always entirely successful, but at least it tries to veer from the well-worn path, and the end result is a modestly engaging, if a bit uneven, comedy.
How to be Single revolves around Alice (Dakota Johnson), a young woman who decides she needs to take a break from her long-time college boyfriend to live on her own and discover who she really is outside of her relationship. She throws herself into a melee of late-night drinking binges, casual sexual encounters, and awkward burgeoning romances—though they’re all the most tepid, vanilla variety. Alice isn’t alone on her journeys, as she’s surrounded by a collection of friends like the boisterous Robin (Rebel Wilson); her older sister, Meg (Leslie Mann), a doctor who decides to have a baby on her own; local lothario bartender, Tom (Anders Holm); and an earnest, over-eager soul-mate seeker, Lucy (Allison Brie), who uses algorithms and formulas in her quest for “the one.”
This is the kind of world that only exists in movies and television, a Friends’ New York City that is full of pretty straight white people somehow living incredible lives. They have shitty jobs, but no money worries, all live in spectacular apartments, and every party is a super cinematic affair with a professional DJ, a full lighting package, and no neighbors to complain about the noise.
The cast is generally likable, though there’s nothing spectacular on the acting side and they simply drift through these scenes. Dakota Johnson’s Alice is just lost and befuddled enough, but still earnest in her search, to be relatable. Rebel Wilson does her usual rowdy, raunchy, physical comedy shtick that, while it doesn’t break any new ground, should be more than enough for fans. Leslie Mann charms as the elder sibling besieged by her biological clock and pregnancy hormones, and shines when she gets together with a much younger love interest (Obvious Child’s Jake Lacy).
Based on the novel by Liz Tuccillo, Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein’s script falls into the trap of trying to fit in all of the threads. The finished product is a jumble and many elements are given short shrift as the narrative loses track of characters for long stretches. Allison Brie is positioned early on as one of the main characters, but only flits in and out every so often for a moment that, while fun, don’t pack much weight. Damon Wayans Jr. shows up as one of Alice’s temporary relationships, but the film continues to check in on him afterwards. Though this continued presence probably serves up a gut-punch in the book, in the movie he’s never developed enough for this aside to feel like more than emotional manipulation.
When How to be Single coasts into dramatic territory is where it falters the most. It works best as a series of funny bits strung together, and a deeper, more meaningful connection is missing, and while it tries to say something about female friendship and self-discovery, it never really hits the mark.
As whitewashed and formulaic as it can be, How to be Single marks a positive step for rom-coms. It portrays this finding yourself stage of life as just that, painting casual relationships as no big deal, just a stage of life to experience. And while some characters wind up in relationships, others ultimately find happiness and satisfaction on their own, on their own terms, finally comfortable with who they are.
Overall, How to be Single is a fun enough momentary distraction, though one with relatively little meat or lasting substance.