If a romantic comedy called How to Be Single sounds rather baldly antithetical, that’s because the title is a bit of a misnomer. No, the commercials didn’t overtly deceive you: this is a glossy, New York-set ensemble rom-com, and it is populated by an assortment of camera-ready, charismatic actors, all of whom play single folk struggling to navigate the Big Apple’s hectic dating scene. Its characters are also all flying solo, for a variety of reasons and with wide-ranging levels of success.
But when it comes to actually instructing audiences in the ways of the lonely heart, the movie, directed by Christian Ditter, doesn’t have a clue. Its title would have been more accurate with punctuation added, so that it would appear less like a college seminar course (How to Be Single) and more like the socially regressive, queasily single-shaming lament it actually is for most of its length (HOW?! To Be Single!? *insert tearful cat emoji*).
To the majority of the film’s “hopelessly single” bachelors and bachelorettes, nothing’s worse than being alone, and so what the absence of a monogamous relationship actually translates to is engaging in an endless stream of hookups, dates, and meet-cutes, designed to distract each of them from the terror of actual independence. Any devout singles in the audience will come away not just unimpressed but a little annoyed by the patronizing sentiment implicit in that setup.
In other words, How to Be Single is formulaic fodder, from the plot beats (besties end up feuding over boy problems, romantic dynamics flip-flop more often than a U.S. presidential candidate) to the thoroughly stock, thinly written characters. Despite that, it’s not egregiously terrible on the surface, instead unspooling as an aimless, mostly harmless diversion with some problematic elements (one character keeps rejecting her romantic interest and saying she’s fine to be on her own, only to eventually be won over by his continued, no-means-yes pursuit of her).
Though billed as an ensemble comedy, the pic primarily revolves around the virginal Alice (Dakota Johnson), who ditches her college beau (Nicholas Braun) and heads for the big city, landing a bizarrely classy yet breezy job at a law firm and a rambunctious best friend, Robin (Rebel Wilson), in the same scene. Taken under Robin’s wing, she dives into the New York singles scene, exuberantly jumping from guy to guy (her hookups include dreamy bartender Tom, played by Anders Holm, and more mature business guy David, played by Damon Wayans Jr.) without much thought for personal growth.
Meanwhile, Alice’s sister, workaholic doctor Meg (Leslie Mann), accepts the single life and uses IVF to kick-start motherhood, only to find herself wooed by a younger man (Jake Lacy); and marriage-obsessed Lucy (Alison Brie) sits on her laptop at Tom’s bar, relying on algorithms to generate potential husbands.
Ultimately, Meg is far more woven into the fabric of the film than Lucy, who stays on the fringes, but both take a backseat to Alice, which makes occasional visits to their storylines feel less like insightful additions and more like necessary breaks from Alice’s repetitive, somewhat numbing character development. There may be truth to the character’s arc, which finds her getting lost in every fresh fella before inevitably ending up out in the cold and far too gradually realizing that she can find herself independent of a man, but it’s delivered so unevenly as to feel obnoxious and obsequious.
How to Be Single faced an identity crisis from its inception. It could either trumpet a message of self-discovery and independence, or enforce the old-as-time Hollywood stereotype that romance is the most important and desirable experience in a woman’s life. But paradoxically, and to its great detriment, it tries to do both.
The story, cribbed from Liz Tuccillo’s book, is credited to rom-com writing duo Marc Silverstein & Abby Kohn (The Vow, Valentine’s Day, He’s Just Not That Into You) and Dana Fox (What Happens in Vegas), so it shouldn’t be surprising that the film subscribes to so many clichéd notions of love and lust in the Big City. From displays of affection involving New York landmarks around the holidays to a comical sequence in which all of Alice’s paramours congregate at the same party, How to Be Single goes everywhere it’s expected to.
So what sinks the film, in the end, is its deviation from those saccharine standards, via a cringe-inducing montage of one character finally embracing solitude by reading Cheryl Strayed, gazing at other couples from her window, and unzipping her own dress (not kidding – one of How to Be Single‘s biggest motifs is a tricky-to-unzip party dress).
For most of the movie’s length, it’s a vacuous but agreeably lightweight romp through dating culture, one that even boasts some genuinely amusing sequences and sound bites (inexplicably, one part still earns laughs despite being soundtracked by – *shudder* – the Harlem Shake). But by tacking on a flat-out awful flourish of find-yourself fizz, How to Be Single draws attention to the fact that it has absolutely no idea what advice to give – without clumsily swapping celluloid with Eat Pray Love, that is.
The screenwriters have all trafficked in cheesy, predictable finales in the past, and the trio’s collective agony in having to exclude a character from a facile fairy-tale ending is obvious – at one point, the character in question is made to stare directly into the camera and deliver the last words of a hokey, platitude-plagued voice-over with a pained, what-now look on her face.
For the film’s target audience, that misguided detour, and the movie’s larger issues with force-feeding its characters propaganda about why they should all find a good relationship immediately, might not matter. Ditter’s direction is occasionally clever, with floating texts appearing on screen to convey the characters’ plugged-in lifestyles, and the Restoration Hardware-esque sheen his shots possess lends itself to this kind of rich-people-problems rom-com.
In the lead role, Johnson uses her winsome, wide-eyed demeanor to great effect, while Mann mines even a mildly offensive scene wherein Meg goes “baby-crazy” for solid laughs. Wilson, too, should be commended for keeping her manic, over-the-top energy in check often enough that her sidekick character feels like more than punchline. The male characters are also better-than-average. Holm embodies the career bachelor so convincingly that The CW will no doubt flood his inbox with job offers, while Lacy’s big grin is the most charming thing in the movie.
If there’s a weak link, it’s either Wayans – he’s a victim of the script’s undue focus on Alice but never utilizes any of the screen time he does get – or Brie, whose story is curiously superfluous given the screenwriters’ proven knack for weaving lots of individual threads into a larger, romantic tapestry.
The real blame, after all is said and done, lies with those writers. How to Be Single is never funny or smart enough, and its attempts to sell romantic schlock part-and-parcel with an overriding message that basically echoes Hailee Steinfeld’s pop ditty “Love Yourself” (the refrain: “Gonna love myself, no, I don’t need anybody else”) feels preachy and disingenuous. More movies should follow its lead in rejecting the socially imposed fallacy that women can’t be both happy and single – so long as they can avoid its failures in falling back into just about every other regressive message and retirement-ready trope in the rom-com playbook.
Caught between empowering ideas and Hollywood formula, this conflicted and confused rom-com wants to sweep its characters off their feet while encouraging them to stand on their own.