Director: Christian Ditter
Stars: Leslie Mann, Rebel Wilson, Dakota Johnson
It’s been a week since Valentine’s Day. My local HMV has a special display of LPs under the heading “Best Break Up Albums” and How To Be Single has just hit cinemas. Evidently a lot of marketing execs don’t fancy our chances. They do know how to lure an audience in, however.
If you’ve seen the trailer for this new romcom from director Christian Ditter, you’ll likely be of the impression it’s largely a two-hander between Dakota Johnson (admirably clawing her way to credibility following Fifty Shades Of Grey) and so-hot-right-now Rebel Wilson, tearing up New York as two empowered single ladies. That’s something of a mislead, however. How To Be Single is an ensemble piece, weaving a handful of interconnected stories ala He’s Just Not That Into You. As such you may be getting a lot less Rebel than you bargained for.
So we have Alice (Johnson), newly separated from Josh (Nicholas Braun). Alice moves to New York by herself, getting a job at a law firm where she becomes friends with Wilson’s Robin (doing her best to out Trainwreck Amy Schumer); then there’s Alice’s sister Meg (Leslie Mann), a career focused midwife struggling to admit to herself that actually she really does want a baby; and then there’s also Lucy (Allison Brie), a single woman with a cavalier attitude towards laptop safety who spends most of her time in a local bar tended by Tom (Anders Holm) because of the free Wi-Fi. She’s created an algorithm to help her find ‘the one’ through internet dating, while Tom – in classic romcom fashion – both challenges and supports her endeavours at every turn.
And that’s not even everyone. How To Be Single is a busy film. The ambition to approach a topic from multiple angles is commendable, but the results are less so. By extending such reach the film suffers from a lack of focus, something that isn’t helped by the marketing mislead that you’re actually getting a buddy movie.
Similarly, for a long while that title feels like a misnomer when you look at the content. Alice may be our anchor, but now that she is single and living in New York her perpetual focus is how to become attached again, and to whom. Robin does her best to convince Alice that this isn’t necessarily the outlook to have (leading to plenty of the film’s comedic highs), yet still the focus is not on how to be single, but on how to date more wisely. Lucy and Tom share a similar relationship; Tom argues against settling for anyone, whereas Lucy single-mindedly seeks to fulfil herself by finding her perfect partner. Even Meg finds herself in a relationship following IVF treatment.
Western culture promotes the idea that if you’ve not found a partner you have in some way deeply failed. Part of what drew me to How To Be Single was the title’s insinuation that the movie might present a progressive alternative, especially for women. For a long time that simply doesn’t appear to be the case. And while there is a lot of fun to be had along the way (the comedy isn’t laugh-a-minute but there’s a worthy success ratio), there’s also the sinking sensation that Ditter’s film is a lot less dynamic than it appeared.
Things take a more positive turn in the final stretch, however. The mid-film lull is compensated for with some of the film’s funniest scenes, but more importantly with a more deliberate attempt to reconnect with that titular statement of intent, at least as far as Alice is concerned. For pretty much everyone else, however, it’s more or less business-as-usual for the genre. Ordinarily not a problem, but in this instance a bit of a let down.
Focus isn’t the only casualty of the film’s wandering attention. Some of the characters here are disappointingly thin. Alison Brie is as wonderful as ever, but Lucy has no depth to her whatsoever, and we know very little of her circumstances outside of how they effect Tom. Perhaps more disappointing is the lack of time given to flesh out Robin. Wilson does her brash, sassy, wonderfully enjoyable thing. But this felt like an opportunity to colour that with a more nuanced character; an opportunity sorely missed. Frustratingly it’s in her final scene that we catch a glimpse of something more. But it’s too late.
One character that the film does triumph at celebrating is New York herself. From Alice’s credit sequence drive into the city to the stirring synths of Taylor Swift onward, How To Be Single is a great advertisement for the Big Apple. One of the film’s most iconic images is of Alice sat on a fire escape by herself, the next building over and the ground seeming very far away. Ditter takes time to celebrate the city (a long shot of Alice cycling across a bridge lingers in the mind) without turning the film into a mere sightseer’s checklist. How To Be Single might not be a great film, but it is a great New York film.
Buoyed by a strong final act and some decent performances across the board (Johnson holds her own with Wilson, which is greatly to her credit), How To Be Single just about sails by with a pass. But viewed as a statement of intent, it’s disappointingly unfocused and even contradictory. But, hey, so’s life, right?