Why do we always tell our stories through relationships? That’s the question How To Be Single, the new romantic comedy from Love, Rosie director Christian Ditter, poses to its audience, promising immediately to be a different kind of movie. This is the Valentine’s Day comedy for the modern woman, it says, empowering and subversive in the treatment of its titular lifestyle. Much like last year’s Trainwreck, it very much wants to start the post-post-modern rom-com movement, and asks us to come along for the ride.
But unfortunately that’s not exactly what we get, with the film instead opting to deliver a pretty standard example of its genre and concentrating more on the laughs than crafting any sort of coherent message about what it means to be young, free and single. Or older, guarded and single. Or just generally unattached.
Fifty Shades Of Grey‘s Dakota Johnson plays Alice, a role that offers her a whole lot more in the sense of winning material and utilises those comedic chops briefly glimpsed in underrated sitcom Ben And Kate. Alice is a recently-single paralegal who moves to New York City in order to ‘find herself’. She quickly meets Robin (Rebel Wilson), a woman who has being single down to fine art, and the two of them begin tearing through all that NYC has to offer.Running alongside this are Alice’s sister Meg (Leslie Mann), a driven career-woman who all of a sudden decides to take the plunge into motherhood via sperm-donor, and hopeless romantic Lucy (Alison Brie), who has made it her mission to game the online dating system in order to find her soulmate.
Do not be mistaken – this is not a film about learning to be alone. For much of its running time, How To Be Single is actually about the ways in which single people might go about meeting one another, and how a preoccupation with the cliches of singledom can actually be just as harmful as obsessing over finding the right partner. It’s here that the film finds its sweet spot, taking so many of the cliches about dating and throwing them out the window.
The success of the male characters varies, but the casting is everything. Damon Wayans Jr is a good TV actor who generally chooses bad films in which to star, but he turns in a surprisingly affecting, almost comedy-free, performance here. Jake Lacy is also characteristically charming as Ken – love interest to Meg – almost playing the polar opposite of his character in Obvious Child. Nicholas Braun, on the other hand, is given the film’s worst character, but he does what he can.
The film is also funny, which helps. Taken as a comedy this is just a really fun night at the cinema, but it’s where it declares any of kind of lofty ambitions that it gets into trouble. That said, there still aren’t enough dirty, sweary comedies aimed at female audiences, so it (and Rebel Wilson’s entire ouvre) gets a million points for that alone.
One of the most disappointing yet unsurprising things about the film is the lack of diverse storylines it chooses to tell. All the film’s women are straight and white, which we knew from the poster, and they’re all apparently wealthy enough to live alone in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Damon Wayans Jr is the only non-white face here, but then he is also revealed to be incredibly wealthy and successful. For a movie that’s supposed to be relatable to the average human, it sure doesn’t go out of its way to be inclusive.
It’s also weirdly confrontational, perpetuating the idea that there’s a right way and a wrong way to live your life. Meg, for instance, appears to be proud of the fact that she’s dedicated her life to being a top doctor without the distractions of marriage and family, but she’s also immediately ridiculed for this. She’s hiding, the film tells us, and her childless existence was just a phase she was going through until she found a particularly cute baby.
There’s a film about sisterhood buried somewhere here, with Alice’s relationships with both Meg and Robin painted as the most important in her life. Though it’s never really stated outright, the film subscribes to the ‘men come and go but friends are forever’ mantra, which is to its benefit. One of the most honest moments in the film is a confrontation between two of these women, which briefly rescues it from its decidedly muddled messages.
The modern rom-com movement is a strange one, purporting to be about women finding their way without getting tied down yet still relying heavily on the most conservative values about sex and dating. How To Be Single is a baby-step away from that, thankfully (it’s exclusively sex-positive, for one), but for every little thing it gets right it does something else bizarrely backwards straight after.
For a few laughs with friends in this most romantic of months, How To Be Single succeeds but, if you’re looking for anything more substantial or progressive, you’re best off looking elsewhere.
How To Be Single is in UK cinemas from February 19th.
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