Don’t let the dirty talk and rampant sex fool you: “How to Be Single” is as safe as kittens. It might be the most harmless raunch-com ever made, a mash-up of several other mediocre relationship films (and one baby film) rolled into one profane package. The four leads sell it as well as they can, but this film was going to be a nonstarter regardless of whom they cast.
Alice (Dakota Johnson) meets cute with Josh (Nicholas Braun) during their freshman year. Fast-forward four years, and Alice is moving out of the New York apartment she and Josh share in order to have some ‘me’ time, thinking she will get a feel for being alone, and that will give her a whole new appreciation for being part of a couple. It’s meant to be temporary. It turns into something else.
Alice moves into her sister Meg’s apartment. Meg (Leslie Mann) is a careerist obstetrician who’s never thought of having a baby of her own, until she spends a few minutes alone with one (this after delivering over 3,000 of them); after which, getting pregnant is the only thing that matters to her.
Alice works at a law firm with Robin (Rebel Wilson). Robin is a party girl who has lots of indiscriminate sex. We are supposed to like Robin, even though she will either be dead or in rehab in three years.
Lucy (Alison Brie) doesn’t know Alice, Meg, or Robin, but she lives above the bar that Alice and Robin frequent, and spends time in the bar mooching off of their Wi-Fi while she perfects her dating site algorithm to find her man. Bartender Tom (Anders Holm) is a player’s player, but he serves as Lucy’s wingman from time to time as she brings her algorithm contestants to the bar. Lucy, unknowingly, has Tom rethinking his life choices, though not before Tom has had sex with two of the other three leads.
Several scenes feel as if they were written in reverse, where the screenwriters came up with a good ‘out’ line, and then filled in the rest. Meg’s scene at the baby store is the best example of this. Unfortunately, while it ends with a zinger, every other aspect of it is unwatchable. In another scene, Johnson does a spot-on impression of Wilson, which would have been a lot funnier if it hadn’t taken place during what feels like a court-mandated argument between the two (the textbook definition of manufactured conflict, this scene). The audience also doesn’t have any context for Robin’s criticisms of Alice, because we haven’t seen any examples of it with our own eyes. Instead, she reveals Alice’s personality flaw, and only later do we see it in action. This suggests that not even the writers knew what her fatal flaw was until they wrote it down very, very late in the screenwriting process.
Those are the scenes that actually work in some form. The rest of the film sets up bits like the Drink Number (don’t ask), which uses some flashy graphics to show it in action, and then demands that Alice do the thing that she just said she wasn’t going to do. In fact, Alice gets a raw deal in this film from start to finish. She seems to be quite a catch (Johnson, once again, shows what a winning, likable actress she is), and yet the script throws obstacle after obstacle at her in order to set up the final scene, which makes the flimsiest argument for being single that you’ll ever hear.
Quick follow-up: Meg was with that baby for a really long time before making her life-changing decision. The baby’s mother left to use the restroom. Where on earth was that restroom?
“How to Be Single” tries to convince the audience that its suggestion for how single people should live their lives applies to everyone. It doesn’t. Heck, it doesn’t even apply to the other three leads in its own movie (four, if you include Tom), and only belatedly does it apply to Alice. For a movie that is meant to celebrate the single life, it ultimately does the opposite.(2 / 5)
This originally ran February 11, 2016 on Bullz-Eye.com.