A romantic comedy focusing on unattached New Yorkers looking for hook-ups and/or love, "How to Be Single" is undermined by one egregious issue: with only a couple exceptions, the characters are insufferable messes, not only in need of a reality check but undeserving of happily-right-nows. The screenplay by Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein and Dana Fox is loosely based on Liz Tuccillo's novel (whose self-help book "He's Just Not That Into You" was turned into a much smarter 2009 film
), and their two-dimensional writing for the film's would-be appealing ensemble makes it exceedingly difficult to care about what will happen with these self-involved, frequently irrational individuals.
Dakota Johnson (2015's "Fifty Shades of Grey
") is the easy bright spot as Alice Kepley, a blessedly flawed but still sanely adjusted twenty-something who experiences second thoughts over having broken up with longtime boyfriend Josh (Nicholas Braun) once she gets a taste of post-collegiate single life. Paralegal coworker Robin (Rebel Wilson) promptly takes Alice under her wing, advising her to play the field every single night and use her home as a place to keep her clothes and occasionally bathe. Alice's potential suitors include Tom (Anders Holm), a noncommittal bartender who has no interest in dating but still has one eye on the terminally single, marriage-obsessed Lucy (Alison Brie); widowed building developer David (Damon Wayons Jr.), who doesn't dare allow another woman get close to little daughter Phoebe (Zani Jones Mbayise), and ex Josh, already engaged to be married but nonchalant about messing around. Meanwhile, Alice's elder sister, fiercely independent obstetrician Meg (Leslie Mann), has no interest in being a parent until she spends 30 seconds alone with a baby. Shortly after learning she is pregnant, she meets a great guy, Ken (Jake Lacy), then makes the decision not to tell him she's having a child. Like you do.
As the story of a young woman eventually learning to embrace the beauty in temporarily being alone and making her own decisions, "How to Be Single" is not without a few truthful moments and (eventually) a strong message of self-empowerment. Getting there, however, is a frequently tough-going slog of irksome pretty people going through the motions of their petty love/sex lives. As the appointed central protagonist, Dakota Johnson is thankfully one of the few tolerable figures; she makes her own mistakes, yes, but is a fully conceived character with plenty of sympathetic facets. Ken, too, played charmingly by Jake Lacy (2015's "Love the Coopers
"), seems to be the only one in sight who is mature enough to be comfortable in his own skin and know what he wants. That he is lied to by Meg, but eventually takes the initiative to still be in her life shows a selflessness that his partner doesn't have; Meg may learn to accept love into her life, but she only does so when it repeatedly shows up in front of her. By never making the first move, one has to wonder if she has really learned anything by the end of the film.
One could keep a running checklist of the ways the rest of the characters are not worth the audience's cares. Robin has no detectable arc; while basing her whole existence around who she will go home with every night, she uses the vulnerable Alice at every turn, gives her supposed best friend the world's worst advice, and does cruel things at her expense. It would take an awful lot for Rebel Wilson (2015's "Pitch Perfect 2
") to be unlikable, but director Christian Ditter (2015's "Love, Rosie") manages it. As for the rest of the players, bartender Tom is an arguable sociopath who doesn't keep food or running water in his apartment as a way to push his one night stands out the door in the morning; Lucy, whom we learn virtually nothing about beyond her need to be with someone, carries around bridal magazines and plots her 18-month plan to be married and start a family; eventual significant other George (Jason Mantzoukas) reveals a scary, passive-aggressive douchiness in his final scene which entirely destroys any hope he and Lucy will have a lasting relationship, and David blows up at Alice for an insane reason one scene after they get together, yet somehow these two are meant to be collectively rooted for. Not a chance.
A page-one rewrite could have only been a good thing prior to "How to Be Single" going into production. All the spare parts are here for an insightful, funny, sweet, sometimes raunchy comedy of interwoven romantic story threads, but too many of the characters are simply unpleasant and the broadness with which their quirks and hang-ups are portrayed puts a snarl in rallying behind the various couplings. The throughlinethat would be Dakota Johnson's Aliceis worthy of a better movie, just as the lovely final moments deserve a preceding 95 minutes to match it.