"There's a right way to be single, and a wrong way" say the ads for How to be Single, a film which arrives on Valentine's Day weekend and, shockingly, isn't about trying to find that perfect love. While it's nice to not have another Nicholas Sparks romance to wrestle with, pushing tired notions of what a true storybook romance is supposed to look like, a film like How to be Single isn't much better. Extolling the virtues of flying solo is perfectly fine and a welcome change, but it's obvious the screenwriters, adapting the book by Liz Tuccillo, have no idea how to do that without falling back on the clichés they claim to be against.
Perhaps this isn't really the fault of director Christian Ditter or the writers, but Tuccillo, who helped present the glossiest view of Manhattan female singlehood ever with Sex and the City, and compounded the problem with her most popular book, He's Just Not That Into You, which became an insufferable movie a lot like How to be Single. The film certainly has a talented cast of female stars to navigate the dating scene with humor and what little depth of emotion they're given to work with. Dakota Johnson plays Alice, who decides she needs a break from her loyal boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) because she's never really been single. It's a chance for her to find out who she really is, but immediately upon experiencing what being single means, she hates it.
Enter Rebel Wilson as the hard-partying Robin, who never goes home and certainly never goes home alone. She's like an evil Jiminy Cricket guiding Alice through the worst possible decisions on the dating scene, like sleeping with pretty much any dude who will have her. Not that Alice does that (at first), but she does bed down with Tom (Anders Holm), a promiscuous bartender the ladies call a "palette cleanser" after a long-term relationship has ended. But Tom has his eyes on Lucy (Alison Brie), one of those phony Hollywood rom-com characters who sits around and analyzes what love is through algorithms and chemical formulas. From the moment we see her sitting alone at the bar we know exactly where her storyline will go. The same goes for Leslie Mann's character, Meg, Alice's hard-working sister who desperately wants to have a baby right now. But soon after getting pregnant through IMF, she meets the perfect guy (Jake Lacy, who stuck around through an abortion in Obvious Child) who is nice enough to buy her hot chocolate and Christmas trees. Awwww shucks.
What the film is trying to say is actually quite admirable, that being single is an opportunity to grow and learn to love oneself, because it's the only way to ever find true love with someone else. Alice's attempts to love others prove to be messy, but the film doesn't fully commit. For example, Damon Wayans Jr. plays a widowed father Alice dates, only to have him get cold feet because of concerns for his young daughter. We never see a single moment of their relationship; the film skips ahead three months right at the beginning, but we're expected to care when they break up. Why should we? The same goes for Alice and Robin's friendship, which is nothing more than nights out partying, flings with random dudes, and...that's it. When a wedge is driven between the two ladies it's tough to really know what they're arguing about. It's like they're arguing about some other movie we weren't privy to.
Johnson and Wilson are terrific, though, which is why it's such a shame they don't have better material. Both women have proven more than capable of rising above films that don't really deserve them, and in this case How to be Single deserves to be alone.
Rating: 2 out of 5