“How to Be Single” is an unromantic romantic comedy, which makes it something different.
Yet it feels just like any other romantic comedy, only with the romance missing, so it’s not exactly something new. The movie is an attempt to adapt an old form to new times, and the result is interesting, but a little off; honest for long stretches and then phony in the most obvious way.
Still, for at least an hour, “How to Be Single” is a pleasurable experience, with its brutal and coarse humor and the sense it gives, false or not, of a dispatch from the front lines of modern courtship. Things don’t look easy out there. Modern love looks really confusing, with lots of rules within rules that all seem to conspire to keep people unattached.
At the center of the movie – another plus – is Dakota Johnson as Alice. Best-known as the star of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Johnson has a magnetism on screen that’s hard to define, a look that seems to change from scene to scene, virtually from shot to shot. It’s downright amazing how well she is sometimes able to enliven pedestrian writing here, the way she did in “Fifty Shades.”
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At the start of the film, Alice has decided that she and her boyfriend need to take a break from exclusivity; otherwise, she will never know what it’s like to be on her own. To make this temporary break more real, she relocates to New York City and moves in with her older sister (Leslie Mann), an obstetrician. She also makes friends with a co-worker (Rebel Wilson), a blackout drunk who has a new partner every night.
“How to Be Single” operates on a wide canvas, covering the yearnings and behaviors of a number of characters, even ones not in Alice’s immediate circle. There’s Alison Brie as Lucy, a fussy – and funny – control freak, who has developed an algorithm for finding a love match online; and Tom (Anders Holm), a bartender, committed only to staying uncommitted and having a succession of lovers.
The weakness of most romantic comedies is that we know, virtually from the first minutes, how all the characters should and will pair off in the end. “How to Be Single” avoids that, and for a while that seems like a strength, in that it makes the movie difficult to outguess. And then, curiously and unexpectedly, what starts off as a strength becomes a problem.
The truth sinks in after about an hour, with questions slowly rising to the level of consciousness: Why are we watching this, anyway? What is at stake? Who cares?
The filmmakers seem to grasp this, and after an hour the symptoms of desperation kick in – the fake arguments between Alice and Robin, a character we barely care about, and – worst of all – randomly occurring montages to the accompaniment of drippy pop music.
The montages are used to compress information and connect disparate elements of the story, but they only serve to emphasize the structural clumsiness and the lack of any real consequence. “How to Be Single” is over a half hour before it’s over.
‘How to Be Single’
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Leslie Mann, Damon Wayans Jr.
Director: Christian Ditter.
Running time: 110 minutes.
Rating: R (sexual content and strong language throughout).