The trials and tribulations of the modern American twentysomething are dissected in minute detail in the somewhat mistitled “How to be Single.” In fact, none of the large, ensemble cast of characters actually has much of a clue. Are modern mating rituals really this complicated? It would be depressing to think so. But apparently the age of the smart phone hasn’t made things any easier.
Dakota Johnson, rebounding from the profitable ignominy of “50 Shades of Grey,” leads the large cast as Alice, who has decided she and long-term college sweetheart Josh (Nicholas Braun) should take a break to discover how to be single. Of course this doesn’t actually stand up to the logic test, and Alice is the only one who’s surprised when he starts seeing someone else. Before she decides to take him back (although get didn’t want to be kicked to the curb in the first place), Alice is shown the ropes of Manhattan’s swinging single scene by the wildly uninhibited Robin (Rebel Wilson).
That would be enough of a premise to support a movie, but it only constitutes a few of the balls “How to be Single” is desperately trying to keep in the air. It would take a veteran circus seal to pull it off, and director Christian Ditter is not that seal. We also have Alice’s (single) older sister Meg (Leslie Mann), an obstetrician who’s hiding her artificially inseminated pregnancy from Alice’s likable, smitten, younger co-worker (Jake Lacy), Damon Wayans, Jr. as a young, widowed dad who briefly dates Alice but hasn’t effectively dealt with his loss, Lucy (Alison Brie), a floundering romantic convinced Mr. Right will yet darken the door of her regular watering hole, and Tom (Anders Holm), a man-whore bartender who has uncommitting down to a science until he thinks he’s let the right one get away.
And that’s even not all the balls. There’s more, and the audience may be forgiven for momentarily losing track of some of them as they pop in and out of the narrative like characters in a video game. Needless to say, with this many characters populating the landscape, there is a real problem with dramatic cohesiveness. The screenplay by Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein and Dana Fox is disorganized and unfocused, and the editing is haphazard. Rather than flowing into each other in a single minded progression towards a climax, scenes sit next to each other like charms on a bracelet. And while many of them are absolutely lovely in their own right, they don’t support the central story because the movie isn’t sure what the central story is. Logically it should Alice’s pursuit of emotional maturity and independence, but that’s constantly being derailed by the nonstop barrage of subplots.
The situation isn’t helped by the marketing campaign, which is aimed squarely at the Judd Apatow crowd. Thing is, “How to be Single” isn’t a drug-fueled shock comedy. There are some very raucous scenes, most of them involving Rebel Wilson,and it isn’t that they aren’t funny. But this movie has a serious case of indie-itis. From the ensemble cast to the streamlined music score, everything about “How to be Single” reeks of good intentions and high aspirations. The movie is based on a book by Liz Tuccillo, co-author of “He’s Just Not Into You” and a former story editor for “Sex and the City.” And that’s the underlying sensibility here. It isn’t a Seth Rogen movie. The high-minded aspirations of the filmmakers did not include, apparently, faithfully adapting the source material, which takes a heroine ten years older than Alice on a globe-trotting journey of self-discovery.
We’re undoubtedly supposed to root for Alice more than we actually do, and her real first steps towards empowered womanhood occur very late along the way. That may be inevitable, given the number of supporting actors she has to share time with. The movie is only partly about learning how to be single, and that applies to Alice, although some of the other characters do make attempts at settling down. The underlying message is apparently that personal happiness and fulfillment can be found either way, something that a tighter and better focused movie could have conveyed more effectively.
The performances are strong throughout, and it can’t be denied that this is a very handsome movie. The New York City location shooting by DP Christian Rein gorgeously portrays the city as a literally glittering fantasy backdrop for the action.
“How to be Single” is now playing in Capital District theaters including the Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX, the Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13 & RPX, the Bow Tie Cinemas Movieland 6 in Schenectady, the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, the Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas 11 & BTX in Saratoga Springs, the Rotterdam Square Cinema, the Regal Cinemas East Greenbush 8 and the Bow Tie Wilton Mall Cinemas & BTX.