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How to Be Single

by PIERS MARCHANT Special to the Democrat-Gazette | February 12, 2016 at 1:45 a.m.
Alice (Dakota Johnson) and Robin (Rebel Wilson) are living the wild life in Manhattan in the anti-romantic comedy How to Be Single.

If a network contemporary sitcom about dating in New York could figure out a way to extend itself to almost two hours, and include many, many ribald genitalia jokes, with epithets flying around, it would likely resemble something along the lines of Christian Ditter's mostly disposable romantic comedy, in which a gaggle of 20-somethings skitter around the glowing streets of the city and seek out romantic fulfillment from which to squirm into and out of for two hours. In fact, 98 percent of the film could be written off as a pandering, dopey, female-centric sex comedy, except in the last few minutes, to my shock, it actually does something vaguely commendable.

We meet our various love-sick protagonists in a series of clipped-together scenes in the early going. There's sweet Alice (Dakota Johnson), who intentionally takes a break from her long-term college boyfriend (Nicholas Braun), to move into Manhattan and live free and wild for a bit before settling down with him. There, she meets wild party girl Robin (Rebel Wilson), who more or less apes the Amy Schumer character in the first act of Trainwreck, only with a lot less charm. Together, the two of them terrorize a local bar run by hunky Tom (Anders Holm), who likes Alice, but thinks he has developed a thing for beautiful but neurotic Lucy (Alison Brie), a critically underwritten character who somehow develops dating apps for a living, and upon meeting a comely fellow announces that they should begin to plan for their nuptials 18 months hence.

How to Be Single

77 Cast: Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Alison Brie, Damon Wayans Jr., Anders Holm, Nicolas Braun, Jake Lacy, Jason Mantzoukas

Director: Christian Ditter

Rating: R, for sexual content and strong language throughout

Running time: 110 minutes

We mostly follow Alice as she drinks too much, sleeps with Tom, then David (Damon Wayans Jr.), a successful real-estate developer and widower, who has a cute little girl (Zani Jones Mbayise) he's raising by himself. Meanwhile, Alice's workaholic, single doctor sister, Meg (Leslie Mann), decides she's going to have a child via an anonymous donor, only to then meet one of Alice's sweet co-workers, Ken (Jake Lacy), who falls for her like a cinder block off a truck bed.

Truly, it's kind of exhausting to even encapsulate this enclave. Suffice it to say that everyone has his/her own take on singlehood and relationships: Tom, who lists numbers on his phone such as "Beth" and "Beth's Mother" for his eventual use; Robin has no idea whom or what she has slept with on any given night; Ken wants nothing more than to be a surrogate baby-daddy and asks almost nothing in return; and Lucy uses peanuts to represent the shriveling dating pool available to her. By the end, not a single word of emotional truth has passed any of their lips.

Instead of depth, we have Robin screaming and yelling about made-up sex terms, and many scenes of booze-soaked debauchery (except, it must be noted, for actual sex scenes, of which the film has none, preferring instead to demurely cut away the minute two characters throw themselves at one another, rather like a Woody Allen film of a certain vintage). In this way, the film is like that annoying person you knew in high school who spoke endlessly about sex and sexuality, but had little or no personal stake in the thing itself.

Generally, I feel sort of sorry for screenwriters -- desperate for a paycheck and a screen credit, I imagine -- who accept this sort of assignment, to write about what's happening right now in the contemporary urban dating scene. But the three listed screenwriters, along with two others credited for the "screen story," and Liz Tuccillo, who supposedly wrote the book upon which this is based, know precisely what target they're trying to hit, and just grenade launched the entire shooting range to make sure they have it covered. It moves in big, clumsy chops and lurches, making its blatant point to where you stop caring about what happens to any of these people and just want it to stop.

But then, very near the end, a curious thing happens. One shallow character opens up to their true feelings for another one, only to watch them giggle, and take off with their new fiance. One side character reappears briefly, but only to give another one a genuinely sweet goodbye. A particularly bawdy character learns absolutely nothing about their reckless behavior and continues it unabated; and another main character decides what they really need is to be truly alone and to treasure the experience as something they probably won't get to do for terribly long before their next substantial relationship begins.

It's a small thing, I suppose, but for all its shrill attempt to make jokes about the modern dating scene, in the end, the film seems to embrace the idea that it's sometimes good and healthy to take some time for yourself and learn how to be on your own. Forgive my low expectations, but the fact that it ends on a scene of Alice hiking the Grand Canyon by herself in the early morning, without offering up some lame new male character in the last few frames to let her and the audience completely off the hook is indeed refreshing and -- gulp! -- almost admirable. It doesn't exactly rectify all of the film's previous sins, but at least it sticks the landing.

MovieStyle on 02/12/2016

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