How to Be SingleReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/11/16 15:03:18
For the second year in a row, Valentine’s Day weekend features the release of a film aimed primarily at the female audience that stars Dakota Johnson and is based on a best-selling book. In the case of last year’s entry, a little thing called “Fifty Shades of Grey,” was a terrible film by all critical standards but it evidently fulfilled some basic function among fans of the book who wanted to see the story that they loved so much enacted on the big screen (judging from the box office results) and it did offer viewers a few laughs along the way—most of them inadvertent, to be sure, but to be fair, it did have one scene (the contract scene in which Johnson’s character negotiates exactly what she will and will not do) that was genuinely and deliberately funny. This year’s entry, “How to Be Single,” on the other hand, fails to achieve either of those admittedly modest goals by coming across as an altogether embarrassing mess that ignores both the original source material and anything resembling recognizable human behavior and fails to supply a single laugh that I can readily recall, intentional or no.The film follows the romantic misadventures of a group of young (well, mostly young) New Yorkers trying to navigate the rules of contemporary relationships and your eyes are already pretty much glazing over out of pure boredom, aren’t they? There is Alice (Johnson), who, having just graduated college and preparing to embark on her career as a paralegal, impulsively decides that she and longtime boyfriend Josh (Nicholas Braun) should take a break from each other for a while so that she can experience life on her own for the first time. At her new job, she meets Robin (Rebel Wilson), a hard-partying type who takes her under her wing to show Alice the ropes (no pun intended) by explaining various rules of the dating scene. Providing a slightly more stable influence to Alice is her older sister Meg (Leslie Mann), an obstetrician who thinks that relationships are just too much trouble but who impulsively decides to become a mother via artificial insemination. Looming around in her own orbit is Lucy (Alison Brie), a control freak who is obsessed with getting married and is convinced that she can find her perfect mate through the precision afforded by the Internet. Unfortunately, she evidently spends too much money on bridal magazines each month to afford web service and is forced to spend all hours at the local bar exploiting both the WiFi and the good nature of Tom (Anders Holm), the bartender who has a bunch of his own rules about avoiding commitment and who is such the opposite of Lucy that there is no way that he could ever possibly fall for her.
After a less-than-successful dip in the dating pool, Alice is ready to let Josh back into her life but it turns out that he is now seeing someone else, though this does not prevent them from continuing to cross each others paths. (At one point, he invites her to the Christmas party that he and his new girlfriend are having, though under the pretense that Alice is his cousin). While this is going on, there are also brief flings with Tom and a recently widowed businessman (Damon Wayans Jr.) that falls apart when she commits the unforgivable sin and demonstrating an iota of interest to his young daughter. After finally becoming pregnant, Meg winds up meeting a younger guy, Ken (Jake Lacy), who really likes her and she does everything she can to sabotage things between them—presumably because she knows she is in a movie that requires a scene in which he returns to her after she finally gives birth. (If you complain about the preceding sentence being a spoiler, you deserve to see this film.) Lucy discovers that the vagaries of the human heart cannot fully be anticipated by even the most precise of algorithms while Tom begins to think that she may be the one to make him drop his hedonistic ways and settle down. As for Robin, she continues to get drunk and screw around and since the film has neglected to give her a real subplot of here own, she just disappears for long stretches of time—not that most viewers will be complaining about her absence after a while.
If it does nothing else (and it doesn’t), “How to Be Single” proves that Warner Brothers and New Line can actually put together an ersatz “Sex and the City” film that costs maybe $40 million less and runs about 40 minutes shorter than the previous installments without infringing on their total lack of quality. Having evidently dispensed with the vast majority of the plot of Liz Tuccillo’s original novel, screenwriters Abby Kohn, Mark Silverstein and Dana Fox have replaced it with a collection of half-baked ideas that flit uneasily between standard romantic comedy, over-the-top outrageousness and moments of attempted earnestness without ever succeeding at any of them. At no point does the film display even the slightest interest in the topic at hand, preferring instead to stick to the kind of cardboard characters and stock situations that we have seen a thousand times before and that no amount of emoji jokes or Taylor Swift songs on the soundtrack (Guess which song is heard when Alice arrives in New York for the first time?) can overcome. (in the weirdest move, we see Alice and the businessman first come together and then, rather than have to craft a convincing relationship between them, the film then lurches ahead three months to show them breaking up for the most ludicrously arbitrary reasons imaginable.) Actually, to say that the characters are cardboard makes them seem far more substantial than they actually are—they seem to exist only to deliver a series of overly cutesy bits about relationships that sound more like rejected ideas for “Cosmopolitan” articles than anything that an actual person might say. Things get even worse towards the end as everyone has their big epiphanies, which are delivered in such a blandly ham-fisted manner that one yearns for the comparative subtlety of the “Welcome to New York” cue.
Considering that I came up with a number of jokes at the expense of Dakota Johnson when reviewing “Fifty Shades of Grey”—suggesting that she was so wooden that every scene featuring her lying on her back could technically be considered planking, for example—you might be expecting me to let loose with another barrage of nasty snipes but that is not the case here. In fact, she is probably the best thing here because even though she is playing an exceptionally moronic character—one who is incapable of unzipping her own dress or getting the Spanish subtitles off of her television—she displays enough comedic flair to suggest that she might one day be worth seeing in a film that actually gave her something funny to do and which didn’t revolve around her having her ass handed to us. She is certainly more appealing than her co-stars. As usual, Leslie Mann is stridently irritating and unappealing to such an extent that whenever the screenplay pauses to tell us how smart and quirky and sexy and funny she really is, despite all evidence to the contrary, I found myself wondering if Judd Apatow did a polish at some point along the way. For her part, Rebel Wilson does her usual schtick and while her brashness does liven things up a little bit at first, she quickly becomes obnoxious—she really needs to find a screenplay that allows her to do something different before she ends up in a rut that she cannot easily get out of. Alison Brie is a little luckier because her character is so tenuously connected to the proceedings that every time she comes on, you are so distracted by trying to figure out how she fits in that you hardly notice how insulting her role really is. As for the guys, all I can say is that Colin Jost turns up as one of Lucy’s potential mates and he isn’t the blandest and least amusing of the bunch.“How to Be Single” is a cynically conceived mess that is neither sexy nor romantic, offers only the most pedestrian insights into the ins and outs of modern relationships at best and is so unfunny that the only real amusement comes from wondering if the topic of that “Fifty Shades of Black” spoof came up while Dakota Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. were shooting their scenes together. Sure, it is the only female-driven film opening this Valentine’s Day weekend but any reasonably intelligent woman who sees it will almost certainly come away from it feeling deeply instead that this load of crap is theoretically meant to represent them and their thoughts. In an effort to help goose attendance, the film is now running commercials aimed at male audiences that suggest that if they go to see it with their girlfriends on Valentine’s Day, there is a good chance they will get laid in return—apparently Gloria Steinem is handling the promotion for this film. Guys, I promise you that this implicit promise is nothing more than a terrible fib because if the two of you are even remotely smart, you will be so despondent over the crumminess of it all that you won’t be in the mood to do anything at all. Of course, if she actually does like it after all, you might want to seriously consider the joys of being single yourself.
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