“How to Be Single” is based on a novel by Liz Tuccillo, who co-wrote the nonfiction book “He’s Just Not That Into You,” which was made into a mediocre ensemble romantic comedy in 2009. “How to Be Single” was even adapted for the screen by the same writers, Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (plus a third, Dana Fox), thus reducing its chances of being better than “He’s Just Not That Into You.”
And yet it is better! Not a lot, but enough. The many tired rom-com cliches it exploits and its mishandling of some subplots are outweighed by the charm and humor of the cast. Directed by Christian Ditter, the film has little momentum, no scenes that build to a comedic climax. But it’s fitfully very funny, with individual moments that make it worthwhile.
Did that third writer make all the difference? Is it the addition of a potty-mouthed Rebel Wilson character and the freedom of an R rating? Is it the fact that (if online plot summaries are to be trusted) “How to Be Single” the movie bears little resemblance to the book? I don’t know, and I hardly care. I’ll take what I can get.
Perky paralegal Alice (Dakota Johnson) has been in a relationship with Josh (Nicholas Braun) since her first day of college, and is only now experiencing singlehood. Her co-worker, Robin (Rebel Wilson), a hard-partying girl who loves being free of attachments, is eager to show Alice how to live it up in the big city. They’re assisted and advised by Tom (Anders Holm), a bartender who’s an expert at non-committal hookups. Tom has also befriended Lucy (Alison Brie), a relationship-minded type-A personality who uses an algorithm to find her best matches across all the dating apps. (This algorithm is introduced as Lucy’s defining characteristic and then never mentioned again.)
Meanwhile, Alice’s sister, Meg (Leslie Mann), is an OB-GYN who delivers babies all day but doesn’t want a child of her own, until she finally spends a couple of minutes with one and changes her mind. Approximately five minutes after being artificially inseminated, Meg meets Ken (Jake Lacy), a nice younger guy from whom she hides her pregnancy, because it wouldn’t be a romantic comedy if someone’s relationship weren’t predicated on a lie.
Yes, it’s enough rom-com tropes to fill five movies, all at one low, low price! No points will be awarded for originality — though I do like that the conclusion (no spoilers) allows everyone to get what they want and be happy even if what they want is to NOT be in love. The editing is a mess, too, jumping from one story to another at random. We go from Alice meeting a single dad (Damon Wayans Jr.) to a moment THREE MONTHS LATER, their entire relationship skipped over (or perhaps left on the cutting-room floor), while other plot threads are allowed to unfold naturally.
The Robin character is a boon. Without a romance of her own (by choice), she can serve as commentator and heckler to everyone else. Her free-wheeling lifestyle also gives the movie a chance to break away from the demure standards of the genre, and even to obliquely make fun of it a few times. Johnson, Mann, and Brie play likable, supportable women whose personalities are very close to having three dimensions. For a romantic comedy, that’s almost a bullseye.
B- (1 hr., 50 min.; )