Ensemble comedies can often be a disaster, but there’s enough charm in How To Be Single that keeps it afloat despite poor pacing and the occasional cliched moment. Are there some of those? Sure, but they really don’t hurt the quality as much as you’d expect, mainly because of some great casting and a surprisingly dense premise.
What’s really nice about the film, though, is that it both subverts and perpetrates the characteristics of a romantic comedy. It’s really about our 3 to 4 female leads, but the men in their lives are steps above the normal cardboard cut-out guys in this type of thing. Each guy has his own intrinsic positives and faults. Because of that, some of the relationships that occur feel really grounded and real, even when every character in the movie drinks and spends money like a fiend, can all afford luxury apartments, and somehow knows everyone in the U.S.’s largest city. It’s got the ‘New York City’ cliche that so many of its comedy brethren have, but it also stays grounded enough to keep us engaged. The mixing of a very real tone with some decent comedy gives the movie a very “re-watchable” feel. Maybe you won’t love How To Be Single the first time you watch it, but you’ll definitely re-watch it and feel pretty good about it the second time. That’s not to say it’s feel-good…it’s just plain good.
Our main character, partial narrator, and most normalized person in the movie is Alice (Dakota Johnson), who splits from her 4-year boyfriend Josh (Nicholas Braun) and heads out to New York City to find herself. She is admitted to a large law firm as a paralegal, befriending the brash receptionist Robin (Rebel Wilson), pretty much immediately. Robin is an expert at playing the town, going out to parties, and she takes Alice under her wing, allowing her to let loose a little bit. She instantly hooks up with local bartender and ladies man Tom (Anders Holm), who has the hots for the girl-next-door Lucy (Allison Brie), the serial dater who needs to find the “true one” as soon as possible. Lucy seeks the right guy, and it could be Tom, or it could be one of the other people she ends up seeing during the year (and change) that this film progresses. Colin Jost, Damon Wayans, and Jason Mantzoukas all have parts as the ‘guys’ in the film.
The other large connection is that Alice begins living with her sister Meg (Leslie Mann), someone who wants nothing to do with a relationship (she works long hours as a doctor), but does want a baby. Just as she takes IVF, she may meet the right guy in Jake Lacy’s Ken. The film then spans over a year in its showcasing of how some people find love, others lose it, others stay single, and others get single by choice. It certainly has its romantic-comedy exaggerations, but it’s pretty lovely stuff all around.
The biggest complaint is that any ensemble movie like this takes on too many characters. That’s very true to form in this, as the myriad of good comedic actors who show up here aren’t all used to their full potential. It also doesn’t always feel earned when time passes and characters become more distant or closer, depending on the circumstances, without the movie really telling us. So, some drama is lost in the fact that there’s a short running time. I don’t usually watch a ton of TV, but this would be a series I’d watch.
Some of our characters, like Rebel Wilson’s Robin or Anders Holm’s Tom, are so excellent at being single that there’s a science to it. As Alice and Tom become more friends than lovers, some of his inner-thoughts about how he stays without commitment, and how he feels about Allison Brie’s Lucy are revealed. I’d watch a romance with just that love triangle, but I digress, these scenes are great, and we wish there was more of him in the movie.
It’s actually a shame that Brie’s subplot feels a little tacked on. The scenes with her seem more about showing the growth of Tom, than actually using Allison Brie as one of the four leads. There’s Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann, Rebel Wilson, and then Anders Holm, really. The marketing for the film made it seem like a big feminist comedy, but in reality, it’s really a movie about how time and personal growth affect our relationship status. Perhaps if the movie was a little longer and decided to be more of a romance epic, as opposed to occasionally working in cheap comedy, it would’ve landed better. How To Be Single never feels like an apt title until the end, and when the true meaning is revealed to us, it’s not really so funny anymore.
Subtlety is also the film’s friend. When Damon Wayans dates one of our stars, it never mentions that he’s black or that its an interracial romance. Instead, he’s just a normal guy who has gone through things that people go through, working on himself in the same way, and it’s more about his personality than working in a “black character.” This was very, very tasteful, and I give the movie props for doing that in such a realistic way.
After the film ended, I really did think a lot about what it had to say about relationships, and although there are some cliched moments or spots where the raunchy comedy doesn’t really hit, it ended up being more emotionally impactful than one would assume. It’s still funny, and definitely still a movie you can see “with the girls,” but there’s plenty more than just the surface. It may look like just a fun, dating movie on the surface, but it’s deeper than that, and I’d recommend it whole-heartedly, even with repeat viewings.