‘How to Be Single’ Review: Dakota Johnson’s in an Empire State of Mind
As a 35-year-old married father of one with a dog and an apartment in the parkest slopiest part of Park Slope, I recognize that I am not the target audience for How to Be Single. I haven’t been single since March of 2000 when I started dating my wife. I spent my “wild” 20s in New York City hanging out in video stores and karaoke bars. Hell, at our age, I may not even be married to the target audience for How to Be Single at this point. (Don’t tell my wife I said that. Seriously. Please don’t.) But you know what? I liked this movie anyway, enough to acknowledge that someone who is in its target demo will probably enjoy it too.
It is one of those romantic comedies in the style of Love, Actually or Valentine’s Day; ensemble films that follows the lives of a loosely connected group of characters. Its narrative center is Alice (Dakota Johnson), who decides upon her graduation from Wesleyan that she needs a break from her longtime boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) to find out who she “really” is in New York City. She gets a job as a paralegal, where she meets hard-partying Robin (Rebel Wilson), who introduces her to ladies’ man Tom (Anders Holm), who serves drinks in a bar frequented by Lucy (Alison Brie), who uses the bar’s wifi to troll dating sites for the “perfect” guy. The other crucial (and best) member of the group is Alice’s sister Meg (Leslie Mann), who works as an OB/GYN, and decides that she wants a child of her own right before she meets a great guy (Jake Lacy, apparently Hollywood’s go-to guy for men who romance pregnant ladies) and has to figure out how to tell him she’s going to be a mom.
The women’s dating misadventures are interspersed with some attempts to create new dating lingo; like “dicksand,” to describe the way a woman or man might get trapped in the tractor-beam like pull of a dude’s sexual prowess. These digressions mostly wind up in the same place “fetch” did in Mean Girls, and Wilson’s one-note I’m-so-crazy schtick is starting to get very stale. But the movie’s sentimental moments work surprisingly well, particularly those involving Mann’s character and her moving journey toward motherhood. Did my wife having a baby less than two months ago might have made me uniquely susceptible to this storyline? Possibly. (Okay definitely.) Still, these scenes showcase the full range of Mann’s skills as an actress, both comedic and dramatic, in a way few films have, and she has wonderful chemistry with Lacy.
I may not be a swinging single, but I am a New Yorker, and I did appreciate the way director Christian Ditter captured the energy and attitude of the city. It’s clear how much care went into finding real locations to give How to Be Single authentic Big Apple texture (even if some spots, like “Pancake Paradise” supposedly on Avenue C, were created for the film). There are also some lovely shots that use the city to convey the characters’ emotions. When Alice has a rough night at a party, she bails for a moment of privacy on a fire escape. A camera on a crane follows her, pulling back to reveal this massive open space within the cramped confines of Manhattan — and to show Alice’s confinement within this enclosed fire escape inside all that open space. It’s a perfect expression of Alice’s mood; that feeling that every New Yorker has shared at one point or another, of being so alone in a city of so many people, and so trapped in a place of nearly unlimited choices and freedom.
No one will mistake How to Be Single for a rule-smashing art-house indie, but in its own quiet ways, it messes with the formulas and expectations of the romantic comedy genre. Film tradition demands Johnson’s character “discover” herself in the arms of a man (but only after hooking up with her old boyfriend); without spoiling it, that is not quite where Alice’s story goes. For every cliché the film honors, it dismantles another. (There are quite a few surprises, for example, in the ups and downs of her relationship with a real-estate developer played by a very charming Damon Wayans Jr.) It’s interesting to consider the movie alongside Deadpool, another film opening this week that deconstructs genre conventions, albeit in a much louder and more self-satisfied way.
How to Be Single isn’t particularly hilarious, but it’s not particularly unpleasant either. The characters are likable. Their lives are fun to wander through for 100 minutes. Their small, daily battles are relatable, even to a 35-year-old dude.