Despite an R-rating, rom-com How to Be Single doesn’t isn’t some imitation of the vulgar life-experience comedies produced and directed by Judd Apatow. This adaptation of the book by Liz Tuccillo is a bit more controlled and real, and at times wildly funny, as it explores the weird middle spaces between major steps in one woman’s attempt to transition into emotionally functional adulthood.
Dakota Johnson stars as Alice, just getting out of college, who has dated and lived with the same guy throughout school. Worried about missing out on solo life, Alice pumps the brakes on the relationship in order to live alone before the couple decides to get married. It’s an understandable concern, if a naive approach to dealing with it. And, in truth, her boyfriend Josh (Nicholas Braun) isn’t all that interesting.
Alice doesn’t really go right into single life. Instead, she finds a safe middle ground crashing with her sister Meg (Leslie Mann), a doctor who completely resists relationships even as she comes to grips with her desire to be a mother. Johnson’s intelligence and likability are used to great effect in a role that makes her Fifty Shades of Grey gig look like something out of a Friedberg and Seltzer parody like Date Movie. Even when this film trips towards zany or bounces into goofy, Johnson has both feet on the ground. She’s not hapless or flighty, and her rapport with Mann seems effortless.
Alice scores a paralegal job in Manhattan, and immediately meets co-worker Robin (Rebel Wilson), a tornado of personality who wears her sexual prowess like a badge. Minutes after their introduction, Robin is counseling Alice not to hook up with anyone in the law firm’s copy room, because that’s the one spot with a security camera. Soon she’s dragging Alice out on the town, instructing her on the art of casual hookups and text-based flirting.
Together, Johnson and Wilson have an oil and water formula, but the force of Wilson’s persona whips Johnson through a couple high-energy montages until we can believe in their friendship enough for the movie to work.
The film’s first half hour is a bit frazzled as it sets up not only that core relationship set, but also the stories of Lucy (Alison Brie), who approaches online dating with mathematical precision, and bartender Tom (Anders Holm), who enjoys a steady parade of hookups by shielding himself from any possible emotional attachment.
As the film carries on, the cast of How to Be Single approaches the overstuffed ensemble of Love, Actually, without being able to lean on that film’s anthology-style script to keep all the stories organized: Alice’s ex Josh continues to factor into things alongside new romantic interest David (Damon Wayans, Jr.), all while Meg gets a possible new beau in Ken (Jake Lacy).
Still, Brie is likable even when called upon to be excessively quirky, and Holm embodies a vaguely affable scumbag. Those two characters are clearly meant to be counterpoints for Alice’s story as she figures out how to orient her life around a balance of her own interests and romantic pursuits. Along with other characters who come and go, they do help represent the way that friendships and hookups can be tied to ever-shifting social circles. The film occasionally struggles to balance the responsibilities of those characters, and it’s curious why some characters get so much screen time.
Along the way, How to Be Single indulges a few flat-out bad ideas, such as a running gag about Alice missing the comfort of having a guy around to be handy with tasks like undoing the zipper on a dress. The joke just makes her look silly, and its multiple reprisals are hamfisted. Even more so is a voiceover from Johnson that seems meant to tie up some of the film’s themes in a neat bow. The movie’s best sequences ably capture life’s unpredictability, making the too-tidy voiceover sound particularly trite.
For the most part, however, the movie strikes its own great tone, mixing the anxious comedy of realistically awkward romantic exchanges with Rebel Wilson’s more over-the-top but effectively comic antics. A constant through line is the importance of recognizing your own crazy and individual quirks and learning to manage them. Rebel Wilson and Leslie Mann offer opposite ends of the spectrum, one seemingly controlled but undeniably a bit nuts, the other appearing to be caught in the most erratic orbit possible but maybe far more precise in her actions than anyone would think.
The film isn’t always great at managing this thread from moment to moment. At times Rebel Wilson’s character seems to exist in her own parallel pocket universe connected to but distinct from everyone else’s. In the long run, however, it connects all the dots and makes even some weird diversions feel intentional. Along the way, director Christian Ditter and writers Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein, and Dana Fox poke some good-natured fun at other relationship comedies such as Sex and the City, Love Actually, and the Bridget Jones series.
More importantly, with the exception of that aforementioned voiceover, How to Be Single sticks the landing, wrapping up the film’s many relationships without much schmaltz. In the last act the resolution of the attraction Holm’s character feels for Brie is played in the best possible way, even as other romantic entanglements are either tied or severed, each staying true to the characters rather than forcing the saccharine.
Three and a half independent burritos out of five.
IMAGES: Warner Bros.