'How to Be Single', Until You're Not

While you might know that being single and being coupled need not be antithetical, romantic comedies don't tend to embrace emotional or moral complexities.

How to Be Single

Director: Christian Ditter
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Leslie Mann, Alison Brie, Jake Lacy, Damon Wayans Jr., Anders Holm, Jason Mantzoukas, Nicholas Braun
Rated: R
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-02-12 (General release)
UK date: 2016-02-19 (General release)

"This is gonna be great for both of us." Yes, you've heard this before, and so has Josh (Nicholas Braun), most likely. Still, it hits him hard in the gut when he hears it from his girlfriend and roommate Alice (Dakota Johnson) tells him she needs to find herself and so they need to "take a break".

To underscore the disparity between what Josh and Alice want, the camera in this early scene in How to Be Single cuts among three basic shots: close-ups of his face falling and becoming paler by the moment; close-ups of her face, speaking quickly and; shots of her torso, revealed as she slips out of her shirt and into overalls, her perfectly toned torso and fetching sports bra.

The film lays out a familiar argument, that men and women see their relationships differently. At this point, you know precious little about either partner, only that they've been together for four years (after meeting adorably in a college dorm hallway) and that Alice has some control over your perception, being the narrator for the "how to" portion. That narration has already set up your background for Alice's announcement, because, she says, she's in search of the right way to "be single". She assures Josh here that what she's decided, obviously without consulting him, is the "right thing for both of us".

At the same time, you know, because you've seen this movie before, that despite her assurances, it's not exactly the right thing for either of them. You also know that this version of this movie is pretty much as tedious as its title makes it sound.

Alice's search for herself proceeds as you expect: she drives into New York City accompanied by Taylor Swift's "Welcome to New York" (only the first of the film's far too literal soundtrack choices) and finds a terrific downtown apartment (as all singles in movie versions of NYC do) and a job that suffices. In this case, she's a paralegal in an office where she meets her new best friend, a veteran and especially rambunctious single named Robin (Rebel Wilson, playing the same part she's played in the Pitch Perfects). Robin drinks and dances, has wild sex and forgets she's had it, she pleases her partners, she pleases herself.

She also instructs Alice in the ways of being single, most of which feature very visibly placed products, identified in dialogue and signage, the film's credits and on the film's website as "partners". The girls showcase Ciroc, Bloomingdale's, ShoeDazzle, and Drybar, where ladies in a hurry pay money to have their unwashed hair blow dried and talk about it, too.

You get the idea that the right way to be single involves having money, as well as being white and straight. It also involves women setting and following rules, like never buying drinks, waiting four hours to text back, and never ever using emojis.

As she Instructs Alice, Robin embodies both the joys and risks of being single, much like Alice's older sister Meg (Leslie Mann). While Robin's a party girl, Meg's a self-described workaholic, an OB-GYN who seears she'll never have a child but brags about her contribution to the planet, that is, delivering 3,000 babies during her career. Alice has neither of her role models' instincts, for reckless scary fun or dogged unfun. My goodness, which will she choose? Is there a middle way?

As if anticipating the laboring of Alice's storyline, Christian Dittier's film provides a few detours, partly occasioned by the bar Robin frequents, where the owner, Tom (Anders Holm), is also determined to remain single, presenting his efforts as something of an art, another set of rules he's eager to explain to Alice ("Sex is the best way to find out what you want," "The trick is to love 'em but get them to leave you, that way no one gets hurt," and his lack of running water, so no girl can get a drink of water post-sex).

Following a hook-up or two, Tom and Alice slide into friendship, after a fashion, or at least they feel able to share with one another their yearnings for other people. No surprise, these desired objects are plainly bad choices, a pattern the movie pretends is a plot.

As plot, none of these bad choices are especially compelling. Tom decides he likes Lucy (Alison Brie), whose sketchy WiFi at home leads her to spend long hours at his bar with her laptop. Alice falls for a wealthy developer, David (Damon Wayans Jr.), with an adorable prop daughter and then thinks some more about the first boyfriend, while Meg stumbles on Ken (Jake Lacy), that guy who shows up in pretty much every romantic comedy, relentlessly funny and thoughtful and devoted despite (and maybe because of) Meg's endearingly neurotic misgivings and unkindness.

Romantic comedies have rules. While you might know that being single and being coupled need not be antithetical, romantic comedies don't tend to embrace emotional or moral complexities. This one offers its own kinds of complexities, asserting that it's different even when it's not. That's a worthy ambition, and you might imagine the many variations made possible by this premise. But it's plain right away that this romantic comedy is exactly that, namely, how to be single -- until you're not.

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