How to Be Single (2016)

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When Bridesmaids was released to enthusiastic commercial success in 2011 there was an exciting feeling in the air that maybe, just maybe, there was going to be a significant, feminine answer to the decades-long boys’ club of raunchy sex comedies. Now that the honeymoon’s over, so to speak, Bridesmaids & its ilk doesn’t quite feel as revolutionary as they first seemed. For instance, there’s a sequence in Bridesmaids where the titular gaggle of women are on their way to Hangover-style sexual misbehavior in Las Vegas only to have their flight cancelled at the last possible second, effectively nipping their mischief in the bud. Half a decade later, female raunch comedies are still acting a lot more tame & subdued than their masculine peers. Take, for instance, last year’s Trainwreck. The Amy Schumer vehicle pretended to be a raunchy, no-holds-barred sex farce about a total mess of an overgrown child who can out-drink, out-fuck, and out-drug any of her juvenile man-boy counterparts without missing a beat. That setup somehow ended up being a Trojan Horse for some unfortunate moralizing about how she should probably stop smoking weed & get married ASAP to redeem herself as a worthwhile character. Joke-wise the film was satisfying, but its narrative arc was kind of a disappointment.

How to Be Single doesn’t even pretend to Trojan Horse its lame-ass, monogamy-promoting moralizing the way Trainwreck does. In fact, it does the total opposite. The film presents itself as a celebration of life outside of monogamous relationships, but spends its entire runtime focusing on women seeking & finding fulfillment through marriage & childbearing only to double back in its concluding few minutes to declare that, you know what, being alone is actually pretty okay . . . for a while. How to Be Single‘s title is a total misnomer. A more truthful moniker could’ve been How to Yearn for a Man Without Appearing Too Desperate or How to Cope with a Shameful, Childless Life Through Socially Acceptable Alcoholism. At nearly every turn where the film could subvert societal pressure to “grow up” & settle down, it instead reinforces the idea that life outside of romantic bonds is narcissistic & self-destructive. It even repurposes the Amy Schumer brand of a party animal “trainwreck” by reducing her to a sidekick role (portrayed by Rebel Wilson, in case you couldn’t tell from the ads) & an eternal punchline meant to warn you about the exact wrong way to live  your life alone in The Big City. At the film’s conclusion one main character is engaged, one is new to motherhood & in a serious relationship, one is a lovelorn clown, and one is happily enjoying a life without a romantic partner . . . as a refreshing break between her long line of longterm, life-defining relationships.

Besides being on shaky, stuck-in-the-past moral ground, How to Be Single also suffers from some glaring technical problems as well. The whole film has the look of a television ad for cheap vodka, giving off the distinct over-sleek vibe that if Zima were still a thing people could buy, these are the people who would be drinking Zima. The film is at first posed as a survival guide on how to enjoy casual sex in (a suspiciously whitewashed) NYC, but much like Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, that structure is a flimsy launching pad at best & the film mostly operates within a typical romcom plot structure. As soon as the protagonist (played by Dakota Johnson) experiments with casual sex for the first time, she immediately regrets her decision & doubles back to land herself in the most easily accessible relationship available. The movie makes an interesting structural choice once she gets what she wants  & lands herself in said relationship, skipping its three month duration until he’s she’s single again & declaring “This story isn’t about relationships. It’s about all of those times in-between.” The truth is, though, that the movie is about relationships. It’s just about pining for them from the outside looking in. Throw in a meandering, unfocused runtime that’s at least 20min overlong & you have  self-conflicted, too-well-behaved mess of a bland comedy that feels like a television ad for a product its endorsers can’t even pretend to believe in.

The biggest tragedy about How to Be Single falling short is the staggering amount of talent it wastes along the way. Comedic actors Leslie Mann, Alison Brie, Jason Mantzoukas, Anders Holm, Rebel Wilson, Colin Jost, and Obvious Child/Carol‘s Jake Lacy all belong in a much better-realized comedy. I’ll even stand up for Dakota Johnson, who gets a lot of flak for the total shitshow 50 Shades of Grey, as being perfectly lovely in a role that asks her to be pathetic & vulnerable to the point that it’s a major turn-off. Her petty jealousies & lack of basic life skills (like, no exaggeration, dressing herself) are not as charming as the film believes them to be, but that’s more of a problem on the writing end than it is of Johnson’s at-the-very-least serviceable performance. She may occupy a kind of strained Zooey Deschanel quirkiness that isn’t usually my thing, but she pulls it off reasonably well. Rebel Wilson, by comparison, gets most of the better one-liners in, like when she encourages her regretting-the-single-life friend to “Go past ‘Go’, collect 200 dicks” before she seeks another relationship, but, again, she’s mostly played as a joke & any of her subversive potential is severely undercut. In a perfect world a cast this stacked would’ve been put to better, less-regressive use, but How to Be Single has no interest in pushing any boundaries & its marketing unfortunately spoiled most of its better gags in its omni-present, repetitious ad campaign.

The truth is that I’m far outside How to Be Single‘s target audience. It certainly doesn’t help that I saw the film in a laughless, mid-afternoon crowd of three stone-silent men (myself included). Still, the film felt like a long line of missed opportunities & a half-cooked screenplay that never fully commits to its basic premise that being single & childless is a perfectly okay way to live (until it’s way too late in the runtime to believably change its mind). This isn’t necessarily the film’s fault, but it’s also a little dispiriting that How to Be Single feels like yet another example of female-led sex comedies that deliver a much tamer, better-behaved product than promised. If this is supposed to be feminine counter-programming for bro-minded, male-driven raunch its idea of genre subversion is milquetoast at best. There have been a few comedies along this line that actually misbehave in a satisfying way: Broad City, Appropriate Behavior, Bachelorette, and The To Do List all immediately come to mind. However, many recent, high-profile, female-lead sex comedies are a lot more sexually & politically regressive than they’d need to be to actually make waves. How to Be Single declares that it supports single women who are “living longer, marrying later, and not leaving the party until [they’re] really, truly done.” What’s disappointing is the way the movie suggests that the party does have to end, that living single is a temporary respite, that marriage & motherhood are an inevitability, that there is a “later”. I’m not single & I’m not a woman, but I still found that idea regressive & patronizing, not to mention a total cop-out to what could’ve been a refreshing premise in a couple sharper, more-pointed drafts.

-Brandon Ledet

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