In a manifesto dropped very early into How to Be Single, playboy bartender Tom (Anders Holm) mansplains to wedding-magazine subscriber Lucy (Alison Brie) how he’s able to string women along without any danger of commitment. “Women hear what they want to hear,” Tom assures. To drive home his point, he turns to tell one of his hooked conquests that he really only wanted to bone her, but that he also respects her too much to lie to her now. She thanks him and exits with hearts sparkling in her eyes.
It’s a punchline at the expense of the woman in the moment, and the man in the long run when it’s revealed that he secretly does seek companionship. But it also goes a long way toward explaining how a film that promises to celebrate independence can be so relentlessly and hypocritically relationship-obsessed. How to Be Single gives audiences, especially those seeking a LTR, the reassurance that their lonesome days can be filled with mirth, so long as the right mate swoops in soon enough. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Grindr profiles that claim, “Not looking for hookups.” (See? Heteronormative dating hasn’t cornered the market on mendacious shields.)
How to Be Single centers around Alice (Dakota Johnson), a fresh graduate on her way to New York City who, on a whim, decides to initiate a “temporary” break from her college boyfriend, Josh (Nicholas Braun), in order to explore herself, moving to a Brooklyn studio with a convenient view of a three-story mural seemingly depicting Small Wonder’s Harriet. More accurately, she wants to confirm that she’s actually a real human being outside of being someone else’s boyfriend, but doesn’t put much of an effort into doing anything other than gushing and fawning over any man who pays her any attention.
If the accepted wisdom is that chronically single people don’t know what they want, the film will stay alone for life.
Her mirror-image sister, Meg (Leslie Mann), is so stridently single and childless that it’s really her only defining feature. Serving as guru for both, Robin (Rebel Wilson) tears through her scenes like a Tasmanian devil dispensing Fireball shots and real talk about how many collective drinks a guy and a girl can split between them before they’ll wind up sleeping together. The aforementioned Lucy is technically neither related to nor interacts with any of those three characters, but still, for some reason, remains in the film.
If the poster art didn’t already tip the hands of the filmmakers, How to Be Single seems suspiciously like an attempt to distill an entire season of Girls (plus one episode of Broad City) down into two wild, heartfelt, rowdy, sentimental, boogery, perceptive, feminist hours. And on a strictly moment-by-moment base, it succeeds at a higher hit rate than similar surface-dwelling ensemble efforts, or at least fights harder. One scene sees Meg left alone in her office with another woman’s infant, so cherub-faced it makes the Gerber baby look like a trilobite. Rather than adhere to sitcom beats, the film takes its sweet time letting Meg’s defense break down against the cooing infant, tipping off her decision to be artificially inseminated.
But in its attempt to touch every dramedic base, How to Be Single shortchanges character for plot. Nowhere is this more evident than in the tricky relationship forged between Meg and Ken, played by Jake Lacy, who, between this and last year’s miserable Love the Coopers, is getting awfully good at playing guys who girls chronically allergic to commitment are suddenly ready to marry after 20 minutes. Given the time to breathe and develop, Meg’s resistance to a younger man startlingly ready to be a stay-at-home father (“Did I win the lottery?” is his unexpected reaction) could’ve been a very real temperature read on the state of family-building circa 2016. Instead, it’s suffocated in between Wilson and Brie’s fire and ice slapstick. If the accepted wisdom is that chronically single people don’t know what they want, How to Be Single will stay alone for life.