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Non-Review Review: How to be Single

How to be Single is nowhere near as radical as its title would suggest.

As with Deadpool, there is a sense that film is more interested in acknowledging the tropes and conventions of the genre than it is in actively subverting them. How to be Single talks a good game, particularly through its central character. Dakota Johnson is well cast as the movie’s lead, anchoring an impressive ensemble of comedic actors. While How to be Single nods towards and acknowledges the expectations of the romantic comedy genre, it is more interested in gently bending and flexing the rules than actively breaking them.

According to formula...

According to formula…

Not that there is anything wrong with this approach. Indeed, How to be Single is a fairly solid example of the genre, with a witty script and a great cast providing just about everything that the audience could expect from a romantic comedy. How to be Single is perhaps a little too long for its own good, particularly in its final act. There are points at which the film hews a little bit too close to the romantic clichés for its own good, particularly in plot threads focusing on Leslie Mann and Alison Brie. However, the movie is charming enough that these are not fatal flaws.

How to be Single could easily have been a little more transgressive or a little more provocative, but the end result is a well-made and well-acted romantic comedy that has just enough self-awareness to understand the audience’s expectations; just not enough to really surpass them.

By the book...

By the book…

“Why are so many of our stories told through our relationships?” wonders Alice early in the film. It is a perfectly valid question, one that acknowledges the unspoken assumptions that run through the romantic comedy as a genre. Two is always better than one. Anybody who claims to be happy alone simply has not met the right person. Cynicism must give way to romanticism. Everybody wants a family. “Happily ever after” is always best when it is shared. These are truths that are taken for granted.

The title of How to be Single suggests a dynamic twist on these assumptions. What if a romantic comedy can end with a character happily alone? Why are the only stories worth telling about those who wind up sharing the narrative? Society has grown more progressive and liberal when it comes to issues of romance and sexuality? Why is the romantic comedy so firmly rooted in so conventional an approach? Times change, and perhaps the genre can change with them.

Familiar story beats couched in knowing irony...

Familiar story beats couched in knowing irony…

How to be Single acknowledges these changes. Alice decides to take a break from her long-term boyfriend Josh in order to experience single life in New York city. She finds herself striking up a friendship with fun-loving Robin. At the same time, Alice’s sister Meg is a professional woman who claims that she does not want a child or a husband or so many things that society expects of her. Meanwhile, Lucy is engaging in the world of on-line dating, using a complex excel-based system to get what she wants from a relationship.

The movie acknowledges the clichés and expectations that seem to come with the territory. At one point in the film, the characters even pause to mock Sex and the City, the franchise that has come to define relationship comedies featuring upper- (and even middle-) class women in Manhattan. “All those girls ever did was look for boyfriends,” reflects Meg in a pithy dismissal of the show, acknowledging the conservative heart of the series. How to be Single seems to be expend so much energy acknowledging these clichés that the audience expects it to avoid them.

They've got the bottle for this...

They’ve got the bottle for this…

It does not. For all that How to be Single might mock Sex and the City, it hews quite closely to the formula. The four female characters loosely adhere to those four broadly-drawn archetypes from the television series. Alice is akin to Carrie, our wry audience surrogate and grounded observer character. Lucy is Charlotte, fixated on her wants and expectations in a romantic relationship. Robin is the Samantha character, the adventurous life of the party and source of shock/amusement. Meg is the Miranda character, who claims to be above it all, but is not.

(In fact, for all that How to be Single mocks Sex and the City, it remains quite close in style and aesthetic to the franchise. Its depiction of Manhattan life is similarly detached from economic or social reality. Alice and her compatriots don’t seem markedly less well-off than the Carrie and her friends; two of the characters are proven to be quite materially wealthy, while both Lucy and Alice are able afford relatively spacious apartments in and around Manhattan. One of Alice’s suitors is a developer who owns the building next to her office. Goodbye recession.)

Have to single the cast out...

Have to single the cast out…

In terms of function, Lucy and Meg are indistinguishable from characters in more conventional romantic comedies. Lucy is fussy and fixated, her head rooted in her imagined ideal of a romantic partner who needs to get out into the world to find what she doesn’t realise she is looking for. Alison Brie is easily the most underserved of the four lead actresses, with the script awkwardly sidelining Lucy so that she only tangentially intersects with the other three leads. (Tellingly, Lucy is the one of the four absent from the movie’s big climactic taxi ride.)

Meg is just as stock a character. She is older than the others, and a wealthy professional. She talks at length about how she does not want the things that society expects her to want: a husband and a baby. However, her perspective changes dramatically over the course of the film. It seems like three minutes alone with a cute baby is enough to force her to conform with those expectations. In fact, it is Meg’s arc that ultimately provides the film’s structure. When the movie needs a third act adrenaline rush, it is Meg who provides it.

"I like my romantic comedy plots like I like my coffee, familiar and lukewarm."

“I like my romantic comedy plots like I like my coffee, familiar and lukewarm.”

Even Alice’s journey is not particular sly or novel. How to be Single works very hard to avoid offering Alice a number of easy and conventional happy endings, with a number of sly twists along the way. At the same time, the script tries to have its cake and eat it. Alice’s closing monologue seems to circle back around to all the familiar clichés that the movie acknowledged in its opening act. For Alice, How to be Single seems like a guide to an unnatural state rather than a mission statement going forward.

To be fair, a lot of these issues are simply down to space. How to be Single has four leads. Even though Robin does not really get a character arc, the movie has to divide its attention between three on-going plot threads. As a result, the characters occasionally feel squeezed and the script treats cliché as convenient shorthand. This is particularly true for Meg and Lucy. The ending of Lucy’s character arc comes completely out of nowhere, powered by nothing more than the fact that expectations have to be met.

Robin them blind?

Robin them blind?

This is not as big a problem as it might seem. How to be Single has a great cast. Dakota Johnson is a solid lead, with a knack for underplayed comedic delivery. Rebel Wilson is not playing too far outside her comfort zone, but she brings a compelling energy to the film. Leslie Mann and Alison Brie balance fine comedic timing with emotional depth, helping to anchor subplots that might otherwise drag or catch. More than that, the script is very well-tailored to the genre. An awareness of the familiar clichés helps avoid the more common pitfalls.

For example, How to be Single is refreshingly emotionally mature. The movie is resoundingly sex positive, never once shaming its characters for hooking up. There is also surprising emotional depth to some of the character beats. A short almost-whispered exchange between Alice and Josh’s mother when the bump into one another on the street, for example, is an understated little detail that feels awkward enough that it doesn’t fit within the streamlined romantic comedy template.

Pregnant pause...

Pregnant pause…

(Indeed, the movie works wonders with a small character arc devoted to a character played by Damon Wayans Jr. It is a narrative cul-de-sac in the larger context of the film, and one that could easily feel trite or heavy-handed. Instead, the subplot feels like a finer detail of a living world. Never holding focus long enough to become a cliché, and insulated from the standard rom-com beats by some shrewd plotting, there is a disarming earnestness to that miniature character drama that helps the whole film feel less stock or routine than it would otherwise.)

How to be Single is not a radical take on the romantic comedy. It is, however, a very effective one.

2 Responses

  1. It doesn’t really know what it wants to say about being single, married, or pregnant. However, it can be entertaining enough that it’s easy to get past. Nice review.

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