How to Be Single would have worked better as a TV show than a standalone film, but then it’d be Sex and the City, so here we are. Okay, maybe that’s not quite fair. Christian Ditter’s ensemble comedy is less flamboyant and more quietly self-reflective than the HBO behemoth, but it does feel like it needs room to breathe, to expand. Adapted from Liz Tuccillo’s novel (by a team of writers who were also responsible for the dreadful Valentine’s Day and He’s Just Not That Into You), it follows a quartet of women, each supposedly representative of a particular type of single New Yorker. The construction is facile and the characters are often thin, but the film has moments of surprising tenderness, and its vision of the city is romantic, yet life-sized. It doesn’t always work, but you could imagine returning to this milieu.
Our focus is on recent college grad Alice (Dakota Johnson) who has just abandoned a hopelessly co-dependent relationship with her boyfriend. She doesn’t just want to see other people; she wants to get a better sense of herself as herself. Then there’s Alice’s hard-partying new workmate Robin (Rebel Wilson), who spends pretty much every night somewhere else. (“You’re single now! You shouldn’t even have a home!” is the kind of advice Robin doles out on a regular basis.) Meanwhile, Alice’s older sister, Meg (an excellent Leslie Mann), is an OB/GYN who loves to deliver babies but is terrified at the thought of settling down. The film also cuts intermittently to online-dating obsessed Lucy (Alison Brie), who likes to hang out in the bar downstairs from her apartment to take advantage of the Wi-Fi, and becomes friendly with its determined single proprietor Tom (Anders Holm). The problem with Lucy? She’s actually looking for someone to settle down with, and most of the men out there just want one thing. As does the bro-ish Tom, but at least he’s affable about it. This is a man who’s turned eternal bachelorhood into a science; at one point, he proudly shows off a refrigerator that has nothing in it which could be used by a sexual conquest to make breakfast. The film is filled with little comic details like this that are charming in their cynicism.
Tuccillo’s original novel was less a story than a patchwork quilt of female perspectives. In it, a thirty-something publicist traveled around the world getting different women’s takes on being single — insights that were fueled by real-life research. (The author had actually been a writer on Sex and the City.) The film is episodic, which gives it a weird, unformed quality, like it could easily go on forever. It’s at its best when it stays on fresh-faced Alice and her world-weary sister, as both find themselves questioning the wisdom of their life choices; their moments together are often surprisingly heartfelt.
The other characters, however, are glorified padding. Lucy’s occasionally funny travails seem tangential, almost like an aborted framing device. And while Wilson provides a nice jolt of energy as a boisterous, hot mess of a party girl, her character never transcends the realm of comic relief. She’s not there to reflect, but to add some raunch and brashness. (Some of her grossest lines are her best — such as when she instructs Alice to go to a group of men at a bar and get some drinks with her “sausage wallet.”) There’s enough of Wilson in the film that you wish she had been given more than one note to play.
Otherwise, the film has adopted Alice’s point of view, which is not a bad thing. To her, the city feels fresh and filled with possibility, and Ditter shoots it with muted wonder. There’s stuff happening out there, and we can sense the extent to which Alice is both intoxicated and terrified by it. That’s the film’s true saving grace. How to Be Single has been billed as a raucous comedy about young women doing crazy things, but its quieter, more contemplative moments are what help make it memorable.