The romantic comedy is going through a bit of a dry spell. If it were a person, it would be at the stage of eagerly accepting blind dates set up by hopeful aunts or swiping right on everyone on Tinder. Whether it’s part of a general distaste with the genre or the larger movement away from mid-sized movies, the major studios aren’t releasing romantic comedies as frequently as they once were. Last year, the only one with a wide release was “Trainwreck,” which made $110 million on its filthy, funny script and the charm of its star — with only a little traditional romance.
Enter “How to Be Single,” with a title that indicates that, like “Trainwreck,” it may not fit the standard romantic comedy mold. Taking an R-rated approach to a genre that’s tended toward the PG-13 rating (a few classics like “When Harry Met Sally” aside), this film from “Love, Rosie” director Christian Ditter, has no trouble getting dirty. “How to be Single” doesn’t quite live up to its title in offering an alternative to traditional romance, outdated gender politics, and the tropes of the genre, but it’s a big step in the right direction.
The film centers on Alice (Dakota Johnson), expanding to include others in her circle and beyond. Alice has spent all of her college years with boyfriend Josh (Nicholas Braun), but now she wants to experience life on her own before settling down. Cue obligatory scene with Alice hanging out of a cab on the Manhattan Bridge as she enters the city while Taylor Swift‘s “Welcome to New York” blares on the soundtrack. New co-worker Robin (Rebel Wilson) is intent on showing serial monogamist Alice how to enjoy all that New York City has to offer, including the office’s best make-out spots. Alice goes home to the apartment she shares with her sister Meg (Leslie Mann), who provides support and a couch to crash on. In her ostensible search for herself, Alice meets bartender Tom (Anders Holm) and single dad David (Damon Wayans Jr.).
For some reason, Alison Brie plays a major role in the film, even though her character, Lucy, isn’t directly connected to Alice and only interacts with Tom. I’m a fan of Brie’s work in “Sleeping with Other People” and “Community,” but Lucy seems shoehorned in here, despite offering plenty of laughs. This would make more sense if “How to Be Single” were an ensemble film like “He’s Just Not That Into You,” both of which are based by books by Liz Tuccillo. Instead, Lucy’s storyline about her desperate attempts to find a husband run parallel to the more central stories of Alice and her sister Meg, and serve more as a (hilarious) distraction.
With all of those major women characters, one might imagine that passing the Bechdel test would be a breeze, but it takes the script from Dana Fox, Abby Kohn, and Marc Silverstein twenty minutes before they have a conversation that doesn’t center on a man. Being generous, only about 20% of their dialogue isn’t about men. Even this somehow seems revolutionary, but the film could have done better. Also, was there a need for the only black woman with a speaking role to get the single, sassy line: “Get it, girl!”?
“How to Be Single” also sometimes misses the mark in its treatment of women’s choices. It advocates pursuing your own dreams and making yourself happy, but all it takes for a central character to lose her long-held intentionally child-free status is a cute baby’s face. The baby is super adorable, winning over a now-soon-to-be-mom and the audience with a grin, but it invalidates the character’s former plans as though they were a whim.
Despite the flaws in its structure and occasional head-to-desk-inducing fails, “How to Be Single” earns more laugh-out-loud moments than quiet chuckles, largely thanks to the comic timing of Wilson. She’s bold and brash, and it works well against Alice’s quieter, less confident personality. It’s not a huge difference from her successful two turns as Fat Amy in “Pitch Perfect,” but I was laughing too much to really care. The friendship between Alice and Robin, along with the sisterly connection between Meg and Alice, means that the film spends quality time with women who spend quality time with each other. Mann, an underutilized talent in Hollywood, also shows an impeccable sense of delivery and great chemistry in her scenes with Jake Lacey (“Obvious Child”).
“How to Be Single” is also more self-aware than most similar films. Three separate times I was about to get annoyed with a path of logic or bit of New York geography in the film (how do they go from the Upper West Side to Bloomingdale’s to the Flatiron and from hungover to hot in 30 minutes?!), when the film quickly answered my question and made me laugh at both myself and it. It pokes fun at the genre, while following enough of its structure to still be enjoyable to fans of romantic comedies.
Indie films are picking up the slack a bit, thanks to entries like the aforementioned “Sleeping with Other People,” but most of the action in romantic comedy is happening on television. Shows like “You’re the Worst,” “Catastrophe,” “The Mindy Project,” and “Jane the Virgin” are demonstrating that the additional time TV series have to tell their story benefits both character and relationship development in a way that can be challenging when screenwriters only have two hours. That time allows female characters to be more than an object of desire (or the one doing the desiring), which can make things infinitely more interesting for both the character and the audience. Though “How to Be Single” marks progress from the standard genre narrative and gives Alice in particular a chance to be herself, it’s not a clean win. But I certainly had fun getting dirty with it. [B-]