When you’ve got a romantic comedy starring Rebel Wilson called How to Be Single hitting theaters for Valentine’s Day, it’s tough not to make assumptions about the content and quality of the movie. However, director Christian Ditter actually manages to deliver a film that both embraces and subverts genre tropes, keeping the film firmly afloat through narrative highs and lows, and also leaving you with something to think about after it wraps up.
Dakota Johnson leads as Alice. She meets a great guy named Josh (Nicholas Braun) in college, but just before they graduate she decides that it’s best for the two of them to spend some time apart and experience being single for a while. She heads into Manhattan to stay with her sister Meg (Leslie Mann) and take a job at a law firm, and that’s where she meets Wilson’s character, Robin, a non-stop tornado of highly inappropriate behavior and drunken tirades who takes it upon herself to teach Alice a thing or two about appreciating and enjoying her single status.
Some may look at Fifty Shades of Gray as a blemish on Johnson’s resume, but she still delivered a solid performance in that and continues to prove she can carry a movie in How to Be Single. She instantly establishes Alice as a highly likable girl next door-type, but one with more than enough nuance to make her feel like a human being and not just an archetype. It’s a blast to watch her let loose and party alongside Robin, but then Johnson has no problem switching gears and highlighting the fact that Alice needs to get comfortable in her own skin before she can get comfortable in a relationship. The script doesn’t give that concept the screen time it deserves and the final edit of the film feels as though it’s missing important beats of Alice’s transformation, but Johnson’s on-screen charm and magnetism fills enough of the holes.
Wilson is one of few who nestles into her cookie-cutter character and doesn’t bother to take it any further. Robin is a crazy party animal with an extreme and unusual daily routine, and that’s about it. Towards the end of the film, Ditter uses Robin to shed some new light on Alice’s situation, but other than that, Wilson’s sole purpose for being in this film is to crack jokes. Quite a few are outright hilarious and some might even have you in tears, but we’re talking roughly one of every four jokes here. Wilson’s delivery and timing are always spot-on, but Robin comes across as a cartoon whereas Johnson and Mann’s characters embrace the comedy, but also feel like real people too.
Meg is a successful doctor who’s delivered tons of babies over the years, but is too career-minded to want one of her own – until now. Again, Meg’s shift from not wanting a baby to wanting one is a bit abrupt, but Mann delivers the honest emotion to sell it. Mann also winds up hitting it big in the comedy department because her jokes are so well woven into her character’s situation. Whereas Wilson’s busy spitting out one one-liner after the next, Mann’s mishaps feel natural and wind up being some of the strongest for that reason. Not only does she have great chemistry with Johnson, but she also makes for a perfect pair with Jake Lacy. He steps in as Ken, one of Alice’s co-workers who falls for Meg at an office party. Meg is convinced it’s a fetish or one big joke because he’s much younger than her, but Ken is persistent and their back-and-forths are some of the most memorable moments of the film. (Keep an eye out for one especially well done scene that takes place in a baby shop.)
Alison Brie’s character feels quite detached from the main narrative, but she still manages to make an impression. Lucy is obsessed with online dating, and particularly with an algorithm she’s come up with to assess her odds of finding “the one.” Brie shines in one of the film’s best scenes, one during which Lucy is reading to a group of kids, but overall it feels like something is missing or that the character came from a different film. In fact, there’s a party scene where it makes sense for Alice, Meg and Robin to be there, but Lucy’s presence makes you wonder if a scene was cut that connects her to the other characters.
Another character that suffers from a weak arc that might have something to do with deleted scenes is David (Damon Wayans Jr.), one of Alice’s potential suitors. He does such a quick, nonsensical turnaround in such a short period of screen time that it’s a wonder Ditter or an editor didn’t stop to think, “We need another scene here.” How to Be Single has its fair share of flaws but this is the only one that completely takes you out of the movie because it’s so poorly executed.
Other than that, How to Be Single is an above average romantic comedy that excels thanks to stellar performances and the fact that Ditter makes an effort to make it a very human story. That quality is in the messages the movie attempts to send and you can also see it in Ditter’s visuals as well. How to Be Single isn’t just littered with single shots that bounce from one character to the next in an effort to cover a conversation. There’s some real style to the camerawork that pulls you into the film and enhances the humor.