How to Be Single relies heavily on rom-com tropes, but succeeds in putting a more thoughtful and funny spin on many of them.
In How to Be Single, Alice (Dakota Johnson) is a young woman who decides to take a “break” with her college boyfriend Josh (Nicholas Braun) shortly after they graduate, in the hopes of becoming more independent as she enters the next phase of her life – in the bustling world of New York City. However, even with assistance from her co-worker Robin (Rebel Wilson) in the art of living the party-happy single life, as well as support from her older sister Meg (Leslie Mann), Alice is quick to realize that she is even less equipped to handle life on her own that she thought… and that a return to her former (and easier) life with Josh is an option that might no longer be on the table for her.
Of course, Alice is far from the only one with relationship issues in her neck of New York City. Meg, an accomplished medical practitioner, has decided that she wants to have a child on her own – even after she meets a quirky younger man, Ken (Jake Lacy), who becomes immediately smitten with her – while Tom (Anders Holm), who runs a local bar where the young singles of New York like to congregate, finds himself drawn to Lucy (Alison Brie), the woman who lives above his bar – and who’s convinced that she can find her perfect match through the world of online dating. Gradually, though, these singles begin to realize that what they wanted or thought they needed for their emotional well-being might not be what they actually need in their lives.
Adapted from the book of the same name by Liz Tuccillo (the co-author of He’s Just Not That Into You‘s source material), How to Be Single offers a fittingly modern perspective on relationships and life goals – one that is explored through a narrative which leans heavily on rom-com conventions and tropes, yet at the same time better grounds its plot elements emotionally – and even subverts the outdated trends of the genre, more often than not. How to Be Single isn’t as sophisticated in its approach to examining the love lives, relationships and hopes/dreams of Millennials (or, in certain cases, Generation X-ers) as recent TV cable series that have wrestled with similar matters (see: Master of None, Broad City), but it is still a step above an average Hollywood rom-com offering.
Directed by Christian Ditter (Love, Rosie), How to Be Single juggles multiple plot threads, but the bulk of the movie’s focus in on Alice and her storyline. Dakota Johnson is now best known for playing a very different type of inexperienced young adult in the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, but How to Be Single allows her a good opportunity to further demonstrate her skills as both an engaging comedy performer and empathic lead alike (see also her work on the short-lived Ben and Kate). While the film adheres to the rom-com formula approach of giving its protagonist a more vanilla personality in comparison to the more colorful supporting characters around them, Johnson brings humanity and charm to her role here as Alice, helping to make her personal arc in the film all the more satisfying and meaningful. No doubt, having Ben and Kate creator Dana Fox co-write the screenplay here helped to make the role of Alice all the better a fit for Johnson as a performer.
From a directorial perspective, Ditter and his production team on How to Be Single succeed in creating a vision of life in New York City that’s polished, yet not so much that it feels completely separated from reality. Ditter and his trusted cinematographer, Christian Rein, likewise utilize certain visual techniques (such as handheld camerawork and glossy lighting) that better help the film come to life – and feel like more than a glorified comedy TV show, in terms of how it’s shot and constructed. NYC is ultimately a setting more than a character in How to Be Single, but the movie nevertheless succeeds in capturing the tempo and energy of the city, as well as the lives of the people who reside there.
Similarly, How to Be Single moves along at a enjoyably brisk pace, ultimately covering a fair amount of narrative ground over the course of less than two hours. Thanks to the editing by Tia Nolan (who’s also a Ben and Kate alum), the film jumps back and forth between different plot threads in an effective manner – though admittedly, not one that usually brings out deeper thematic substance by juxtaposing the various storylines together, other than the meaning that’s apparent on the surface – and keeps the conversations between characters flowing along to a quick, though generally natural, rhythm. Between its editing and the adapted script work – co-credited to the writing duo Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (He’s Just Not That Into You) in addition to Fox – How to Be Single proves able to include the essential elements of each individual plot thread… though some threads are better developed and fleshed out in comparison to others.
The charismatic and talented cast in How to Be Single further elevate the movie above its storytelling flaws. Johnson, as was mentioned before, leads the charge here as Alice and the character’s friendship with Rebel Wilson’s Robin feels all the more genuine for it, as does her connection with Leslie Mann (as her older sister Mara). How to Be Single makes good use of Wilson and Mann’s comedic sensibilities, by giving the pair room to infuse their characters with richer personalities and quirks – allowing them to be funny, but also sincere when called for. Alison Brie (Community) and Anders Holm (Workaholics) get less screen time and are more cartoonish for it, but Brie and Holm further demonstrate here that they can handle wacky antics and moments of meaningful drama equally well.
How to Be Single‘s “heart” comes first from the relationships between Johnson, Wilson, and Mann’s characters, but the cast is rounded out by a talented supporting crew of actors who help to make the more conventional and/or over the top aspects of the film’s narrative (see, for example, the numerous “Meet Cute” scenarios) fly better than they might have done otherwise. In addition to Nicholas Braun (Poltergeist) playing Alice’s “ex”-boyfriend, Josh, How to Be Single includes Damon Wayans Jr. (New Girl), Jake Lacey (Girls), and Jason Mantzoukas (The League) in key supporting roles – some of which could have used more development, truth be told. Still, in a cast this full with name actors, it’s worth noting that they all get a moment (or more) to really shine in the film.
How to Be Single relies heavily on rom-com tropes, but succeeds in putting a more thoughtful and funny spin on many of them. That can be attributed to a combination of solid screenwriting – as well as how the film’s source material tackles its subject matter – and the likable performances from the (quite capable) ensemble cast. While the film doesn’t go so far as to break the traditional Hollywood rom-com mold altogether, it comes much closer to doing so than a number of similar films from the past decade have. As such, How to Be Single is a solid Valentine’s Day weekend viewing choice – whether you are in a committed relationship right now or enjoying the single life at the moment.
How to Be Single is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 110 minutes long and is Rated R for sexual content and strong language throughout.
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