Let’s be clear right up front: There is nothing in the movie How to Be Single that provides any legitimate guidance regarding how to exist as a single person in contemporary America. The characters in the mammoth cast of this ensemble rom-com may all, technically, be single, but they spend most of their time hooking up, wading through failed online dates, falling in love, breaking up, and obsessing about their past and/or current relationships. No one is technically married, but no one looks truly alone either.
But that’s exactly why people who actually are alone, in real life, turn to a movie like How to Be Single: to live vicariously through the fictional on-screen men and women who can lose a guy (or girl) in 10 days, then find another one in five minutes. This is a romantic comedy that seems to have been scientifically engineered for singletons attempting to enjoy a Galentine’s Day night on the town, which is to say that it contains virtually no narrative surprises yet somehow, that lack of surprise doesn’t prevent the film from being pleasant to watch. Seriously, this movie actually opens with a wide shot of its central protagonist (Dakota Johnson) traveling into New York City while Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York” plays on the soundtrack. You will watch this moment and think, “Jesus, that is so on-the-nose it qualifies as cinematic rhinoplasty.” And then a second later you will think: “This song was basically invented to open a romantic comedy like this one. Whatever, I’ll go with it.”
“Whatever, I’ll go with it,” also happens to be the philosophy adopted by several characters in this movie, including Johnson’s Alice, who temporarily breaks things off with the guy she’s dated since college so she can go to the Big Apple and find herself, then immediately leaps into the hook-up scene; Alice’s sister, Meg (Leslie Mann), an obstetrician who has sworn off having children but, after spending just a few minutes babysitting an obscenely cute baby, decides to get pregnant via IVF; Lucy (Alison Brie), who takes online dating overzealousness to a whole other level; and Robin (Rebel Wilson), who, in what has become a Rebel Wilson tradition, is the movie’s female id.
Robin is the sort of woman who regularly pulls entire bottles of champagne out of her cleavage and has so much casual sex that she may have invented a few new STDs. She’s vulgar, loud and drunk, unless she’s hungover, and even then, she’s still pretty loud and vulgar. She uses the term “sexual sorbet” to describe a guy who’s great for casual sex, and “dicksand,” as a euphemism for what happens when a woman gets sucked into a useless relationship. She is basically the game Cards Against Humanity in person form, which often works from a comic relief standpoint but doesn’t allow Wilson to create anything close to an actual character.
Really, none of these women nor their many male counterparts — including Anders Holm, the reliably upstanding Jake Lacy, Nicholas Braun, and Damon Wayans, Jr. — feel like fully realized individuals. They’re more like pretty emotive chess pieces getting moved from romantic scenario to romantic scenario and dropping the occasional sharply observed bon mot while in transit. Johnson has the most success at finding the humanity in her character; even in a breezy rom-com, she exudes an intelligence and sly wit — her impression of Rebel Wilson is a true delight — that makes you root for her and relate to her, even though it’s completely ridiculous that, as a grown-ass woman, she can’t figure out how to turn off her TV’s SAP function without help from a dude.
The screenplay for How to Be Single — based on the novel by former Sex and the City writer Liz Tuccillo, who also co-wrote the book He’s Just Not That Into You — was co-written by Dana Fox (Couples Retreat) and Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, the same duo who wrote Never Been Kissed and, yes, the movie version of He’s Just Not That Into You. In a lot of ways, with its multiple, intersecting storylines, How to Be Single plays like a lighter, funnier version of that other Tuccillo adaptation, which also was a predictable yet semi-pleasurable rom-com.
At one point, Mann’s Lucy tells Alice that she needs to stop expecting Bridget Jones’s Diary and episodes of Sex and the City to provide some window into what it’s really like to be single. In those movies and shows, one sister says to another, the women aren’t really alone because they’re always either with or talking about men. The very same thing could be said about How to Be Single. But when a modern love story elicits a few laughs while also showing off a New York that, under the direction of Christian Ditter, looks like a glimmering fairy land where bridges glow in the distance and fire escape stairwells rise high above the clouds, you probably, honestly, won’t really care that it doesn’t reflect reality. You might even prefer that it doesn’t.