Movie review: How to Be Single
The screen adaptation of Liz Truccillo’s novel coulda, woulda, shoulda been a feminist contender about transcending fairy tale expectation
How to Be Single
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Leslie Mann, Alison Brie, Jake Lacy, Damon Wayans Jr.
Directed by: Christian Ditter
Running time: 110 minutes
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
It was about time we had a movie about women who could conceive of happiness without a partner, and that’s What How to Be Single seemed to promise in the title alone.
Based on Liz Tuccillo’s novel about a group of women who land in the big city with different dreams of happiness, we’re introduced to Meg (Leslie Mann), a successful single doctor who delivers babies but doesn’t want one, her little sister Alice (Dakota Johnson), a starry-eyed dreamer who breaks up with her steady boyfriend so she can feel what it’s like to be alone, Lucy (Alison Brie), a single gal looking for Mr. Right, and Robin (Rebel Wilson), the no-holds-barred party girl who refuses to conform to any Happy Housewife expectation.
Without getting into the warped version of reality that brings these women together, the whole point of exercise is to explore how women approach the concept of happiness.
Is it something we find in consummating the fantasy of getting married and being happy ever after? Or is happiness something we can find within ourselves, without external validation?
It’s such an important discussion for our gender to embrace, that How to Be Single’s failure as a film feels a little tragic.
Nothing really works. The quartet of writers behind the story and screenplay create a cross between a frat party movie and a soap opera, weaving different emotional plotlines together via beer and wine-fuelled social gatherings.
Inevitably, the Robin character pops up behind a couch straightening her frock talking about the rocking sex she had the night before. Meanwhile, the other, more responsible, girls are consumed with either post-coital guilt, breakup sorrow, or deep regrets about the one that got away.
It’s all so tediously presented as a shallow comedy cocktail, with a rim of salty humor and a twist of subversive edge, that midway through the film I wanted a martini glass to hurl at the screen.
Given Hollywood’s inherently sexist tropes, this movie couldn’t afford to be formulaic. It had to rewrite some of the rules. Instead, it just inserts female bodies into boyish form.
Robin becomes the promiscuous playboy joker. Meg becomes the cute older bachelor who finally wants a kid, and Alice is the nice guy who gets taken advantage of by selfish prima donnas.
It’s more The Hangover than Wild, but that doesn’t stop director Christian Ditter from trying to go deep. We get a handful of scenes where the talented leads are given a chance to exchange some decent lines and discuss the modern hazards of dating, or the ache of being alone.
These moments, where the feelings are recognizable and the performances register one notch below over-the-top, have some ballast to them. The cast is trying to keep it real.
The scenes between Leslie Mann and Jake Lacy (Obvious Child) have comic charm because they sell goofy insecurity and a fear of love. Rebel Wilson takes care of the farce. But Alison Brie and Dakota Johnson almost feel like one character split in two—then abandoned.
Though Johnson has screen presence, she doesn’t really register emotionally. Looking into her face is like staring into a cloudless sky: clear blue, and just a little vacant.
It’s true to this particular character, so on one level it works: Alice doesn’t know what she wants. And this movie had to be okay with that, but it seems confused about where to put the cathartic emphasis.
Alice’s awakening feels like an afterthought, or a last-ditch attempt at redemption, not the cumulative expression of everything she’s experienced. Nothing in this movie really makes much emotional sense, and for characters that were supposed to transcend the fairy tale ending, How to Be Single may as well have ended with a sunset. Oh yeah, come to think of it, it does.