by KOURTNEY PARANTEAU
The past year proved one in which female sensibilities, particularly in comedy, rose to a prominence never before approached. The reigning popularity of Amy Schumer, “Broad City,” and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s return to the Golden Globes podium all signaled a new level of attention towards truly funny, unabashedly feminist humor. Christian Ditter’s “How to be Single,” from this vantage point, felt readily poised to catch the momentum laid out before it. However, the film, at nearly every opportunity, plays out like a cash grab capitalizing on pop culture’s warming to the tastes and voices of female narratives.
Buoyed by the reputation of Rebel Wilson’s brash persona, Dakota Johnson’s other big feature (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) and Leslie Mann’s overall likeability, the film, by its skin alone, holds a fierce amount of promise. “How to be Single” quickly squanders, though, any timeliness or contribution to a genre riddled with disappointingly reductive routines when it comes to imagining the lives women lead while predominantly around only each other.
Alice (Johnson), recently out of a relationship, takes a job as a paralegal and attempts to traverse the Big Apple for the first time as a single, alongside her friend Robin (Wilson) and her older sister (Mann). The film’s home base is a pick-up bar where a semi-attractive bartender preys on unsuspecting young women and dispenses mediocre advice and casual sex to Alice. Lucy (Alison Brie), another bar regular, pops in and out of “How to Be Single” as a love-obsessed young woman who uses the bar’s Wi-Fi as she toggles between internet dating sites.
Brie’s Lucy feels like an updated and more forgivable Charlotte of Sex in the City and her presence breathes the only spark into an otherwise ignorable plot. Whenever the narrative finds Lucy (only to soon forget her) the central characters are revealed as even duller, hackier and bigger wastes of times from the last time we saw them. Brie, on the heels of the much more successful “Sleeping With Other People” (Leslye Headland, 2015), seems to be finding a voice that can be heard even through the clutter of pointless excitations the rom-com genre often becomes stuffed with.
Because, at its heart and despite the light protestations of its title and rhetoric, “How to be Single” is a romantic comedy–and if it were titled “How to Spend Your Time While You’re Single to Make You More Dateable Later On,” the title would be hundreds of times more honest. Based on a book by the same author as the equally deplorable “He’s Just Not that Into You,” “How To Be Single” is a disgusting narrative masquerading as a guidebook. It tells women who want partnership to continue taking it on the chin until the right guy comes along.
Never actually confronting the possibility that singledom has perks, the film spends nearly all of its depicted nights out dancing, drinking to excess and sleeping on couches, without any characters washing their faces, let alone moisturizing. Ditter’s film makes single life out to be an exhausting peril of bandage dresses and taxicabs.
Johnson’s Alice cannot even unzip her own clothing without help, and watching the actress struggle to disrobe over and over again resonates as more embarrassing than relatable. Wilson’s Robin never becomes anything more than an exemplar of excessiveness. She drinks the most, talks the loudest, has the most sex and the most fun, and dresses extravagantly, but her character lacks any sense of interiority and her physicality as an overweight woman appears to have been used by Ditter to cheat his way into explaining female pleasure.
The usual complaints over popular media’s depiction of youth in New York City all remain; Alice’s apartment outperforms her salary, the central characters lack diversity, occupations feel like accessories, and the prospect of romance overrides the gratification of friendship. This familiar list of gripes, however, is continually overshadowed by how hollowly “How to Be Single” reverberates. Besides the scarce appearances of Alison Brie, the film’s one contribution to an otherwise desolate landscape is the truly casual sex its characters are able to have without guilt, humiliation, or walks of shame. Beyond this amendment and a handful of jokes clearly written by a punch-up artist, “How to be Single” disappoints even within its disgraced genre.
Instead of exploring the space women share or occupy together prior to or in place of a heterosexual, romantic partnership, “How to Be Single” ends up as a frantic tale of how to complete oneself for the enjoyment of a male onlooker, despite its flimsy gestures toward independence and solidarity among the female sex. Like a meal comprised only of carbohydrates, Ditter’s film takes up space but without much flavor or color, and the craving which brings you to the table is only satisfied for a moment.
(“How to Be Single” is currently playing in theaters nationwide.)