Thursday, February 11, 2016

Review: "How to Be Single"

"How to Be Single" is part raunchy sex comedy, and that part's fun, at least for awhile. But it also wants its moments of tenderness and wisdom, and that stuff is just pure death, man.

In addition, it sets up a female protagonist and her off-the-hook wingwoman, and then just as we're settling in with them and their man troubles, it introduces a whole other heroine, and throws in a sister for the first woman to boot. Suddenly we're dickering around with these two new ladies and their romantic contretemps, plus the main gal, and there are so many storylines and random hook-ups with dudes we lose track of who's on first.

The end result is a confused mash-up of "Love, Actually" and "The Hangover." If that sounds like an impossible mix of mutually exclusive tones, that's because it is.

"Single" is based on the debut novel of Liz Tuccillo, adapted for the screen by Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein and Dana Fox. Christian Ditter directed, and while normally I'm not much of a player in the identity politics game, the use of a male director for a story on dating from a decidedly feminine perspective feels wrongheaded.

The women wind up as feminized versions of male characters, carousing and partying and waking up in bed with people they don't recognize. Except sometimes they show a little regret afterward, whereas the guys wouldn't.

(And considering how much sex these characters have with random strangers, a more credible title would've been, "How to Deal with a Tsunami of STDs.")

Dakota Johnson plays Alice, a sweet girl from Wesleyan University who spent all four years in a relationship with Josh (Nicholas Braun), who's tall and nice and cute but not, y'know, vroom! So she kicks him to the curb when she moves to New York City for a new start. Officially it's a "break," not a break-up, so they can try life as singles to see if they really want to be together.

Alice gets a job in a posh law firm as a paralegal, where she meets Robin, played by the incomparable Rebel Wilson. Wilson always seems to play the same role, yet we never tire of it: the audacious party girl whose orbital confidence wows the boys and divides the girls, who either dismiss her or become her bestie. Alice opts for the latter.

Segue to a bunch of scenes of the pair dancing, drinking, sexing. Alice's first conquest is Tom (Anders Holm), an agreeable bartender whom Robin introduces as the training wheels runway to a new life of debauchery. After their coupling, Tom offers his own pointers on how to avoid emotional entanglements, such as keeping no food or running water in his apartment, so overnight guests have to leave for sustenance.

Then into Tom's bar walks Lucy (Alison Brie), using the free WiFi to maintain her 10 dating site profiles. She thinks she's got this whole mate selection thing down to a science, feeding potential dates into a spreadsheet. Meanwhile, the scruffy pourer across the bar from her might just be her ideal match after all. (When he's not screwing Alice, that is.)

Alice briefly lives with her (implausibly) older sister Meg, an Ob/Gyn doctor played by Leslie Mann who secretly hates babies but even more secretly wants one of her own. She eventually gets pregnant via an anonymous sperm donor but then attracts the eye of a much younger man (Jake Lacy), leading to some predictable prevaricating about the source of her burgeoning belly.

Occasionally the movie remembers to go back to Alice, who's tempted to reunite with Josh, then gets in deep with a slightly older widower (Damon Wayans Jr.) with a young daughter. There's one scene where the guy shows his kid pictures of her mommy for the very first time. It's genuinely moving, but a completely head-whipping changeup from what comes before and after.

I haven't read Tuccillo's book, but to my understanding its protagonist is a publicist pushing 40 who sets off to write a book about what it's like being a single woman in different parts of the world. Which makes "How to Be Single" the latest movie to buy the rights to a book just because somebody liked the title, and throw everything between the covers into the trash.

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