The opening narration of “How to be Single,” a new rom dram—romantic dramedy—starring “50 Shades of Grey” star Dakota Johnson, informs us that it isn’t about relationships, it’s about the times in between. And so it goes that the main character is basically single for most of the movie, but in reality the film is about relationships and nothing more.
On the eve of graduation Ivy Leaguer Alice (Johnson) has “the talk” with her long time boyfriend Josh (Nicolas Braun). She’d like to spend some time apart and find herself before they make a lifelong commitment. “I can’t wonder ‘what if,’” she says. “This is going to be great for both of us.” To learn what it means to be alone, she moves to New York, gets a job as a paralegal and kicks off the “Sex and the Sex” phase of her life with new workmate Robin (Rebel Wilson) as her guide.
“Where are you going?” asks Robin.
“Hone,” says Alice.
“I never want to hear you say that again,” snorts Robin. “You’re single.”
And so it begins.
At first, under the brazen Robin’s tutelage, Alice is an awkward flirt but soon embraces what her new friend calls a “sexual rumspringa” or rite of passage. She learns that drinks are a man’s “sexual currency” and just how long to wait before returning a text from a one night stand. From womanizing bartender Tom (Anders Holm) she discovers the trick to getting pick-ups out of the house the next day—turn off the water so thirsty “hungover chicks have to leave to survive.”
It’s a steep learning curve that sees her have flings with the above-mentioned bartender—“He’s sexual sorbet,” says Robin—and single father David (Damon Wayans Jr.) as several other characters swirl around her. Her workaholic sister Meg (Leslie Mann) begins a May-December relationship with Ken (Jake Lacy) while upstairs neighbour Lucy (Alison Brie) searches Manhattan looking for Mr. Right.
“How to be Single” is a messy retelling of Liz Tuccillo’s novel of the same name. It’s part slapstick comedy, part heart-tugger, part coming-of-age. The kitchen sink approach isn’t as bad as it sounds because director Christian Ditter has taken pains to cast the right people in the right roles. Wilson provides over-the-top comic relief—I don’t know if she has any range, but she’s very funny here—the guys represent various stereotypes—the playboy, the damaged single father, the puppy dog—and Mann makes the most of a role we’ve seen before, the workaholic who feels the ticking clock.
It’s a nice, appealing ensemble but it’s Johnson who brings the charm. She has a natural way about her, like Greta Gerwig gone slightly Hollywood, that allows complex emotions bleed through a seemingly simple performance. She makes Alice compelling, delivering funny lines—“I’ll be alone forever but at least my dead body will be food for the cats.”—and sad with equal skill.
“How to be Single” doesn’t add much, other than entertainment value, to the genre. Its basic premise is blurred as everyone ends up with someone—some romantically, some platonically, all hooked up—following the film’s sombre realization that being alone is OK as long as you aren’t… I don’t know, lonely? As a statement on modern relationships it’s muddled—”Why do we always tell our stories through relationships?” it asks, before doing just that.—but it does deliver enough laughs and romance to make it a pleasing enough Valentine’s Day diversion.