Actress Dakota Johnson broke through last Valentine’s Day with the steamy drama “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But before its sequels shackle her once more to brooding co-star Jamie Dornan, she’s treating audiences to “How to Be Single,” an R-rated romantic comedy about the highs and lows of dating in New York City.
The trailer had me expecting the worse, with gross dudes, dud gags and slapdash portraits of girl power. But “How to Be Single” proves a pleasant surprise. It’s not the best comedy opening this weekend (that’d be “Deadpool”), but it’s definitely not the worst (that’d be “Zoolander 2”).
Johnson stars as recent college grad Alice, who stumbles into single life after dumping her longtime boyfriend because … actually, I didn’t follow her logic; something about them being “too comfortable” together. She no sooner lands a job at a law firm than she meets booze-swilling, bed-hopping train wreck Robin (“Pitch Perfect’s” Rebel Wilson), who bullies her into clubbing and banging bartenders as a path to self-fulfillment. Meanwhile, Alice’s big sister Meg (Leslie Mann) is shaking up her workaholic life by becoming a single mom through in vitro fertilization, only for her plans to become complicated when she falls for a dopey-yet-endearing younger man (“Obvious Child’s” Jake Lacy). And totally unaffiliated with these women is Alison Brie’s Lucy, who’s so fixated on getting married that she’s worked out an algorithm to make the most of dating apps.
There’s too much plot for the film’s runtime, so threads are crudely stitched together in an often-jarring manner. The biggest occurs when Alice’s first kiss with a dapper real-estate developer (Damon Wayons Jr.) smash-cuts to a “three months later” title card and their emotional breakup. That’s actually the second time the film leaps from meet-cute to breakup, so when Alice is later called out for losing her identity every time she gets a boyfriend, it rings hollow. Still, Johnson shines as this 20-something single, nailing her scenes’ awkward humor and Alice’s emotional growth.
Brie sparkles, whether she’s flirting with a dedicated bachelor (Anders Holm of “Workaholics”), or having a Spanx-slicing meltdown in front of confused children and a smirking bookstore owner (“The League’s” Jason Mantzoukas, who should be upgraded to romcom lead immediately). Her plot line is tissue-paper thin yet fun.
However, Mann’s stuff is by far the best, with the comedy all-star inducing giggle fits with everything from insulting a baby to flubbing a flirtation. She and Johnson share an effusive chemistry that sells their sister bond and grounds the film after a slow, cliche-filled setup. Better still, Mann is dynamite as the dubious December to Lacy’s mirthful May; her sharp wit and slaying side-eye are a fantastic match for Lacy’s lovable himbo. And the odd couple’s blowout fight in a baby clothing store is by far film’s best scene, charged with a mesmerizing mix of hurt, humor, excitement and love.
Then there’s Rebel Wilson.
Full disclosure: I’ve never found Wilson funny, but the way she’s wedged into “How to Be Single” (exposition ends and then she sputters insults and racy punchlines) makes her seem like one big studio note of “NEEDS TO BE WACKIER/RAUNCHIER!”
Robin’s impact on the plot is essentially urging Alice into hookups, beauty treatments and drama-rama encounters before blowing up at her in a completely preposterous real-talk moment. And considering reading books about personal growth (Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” and Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild”) becomes a marker of Alice’s evolution, it’s easy to see where an earlier draft had Robin as an actual, terrible self-help book. As is, Wilson came to bring the weak R-rating (lots of sex talk, no sex scenes), comparing Alice’s pubic hair to an angry wizard and offering crass counsel with a dull-eyed wink and a tit punch. It’s her standard shtick; it does nothing for me.
Despite a rough start, I did enjoy “How to Be Single.” It’s a mess of a movie, lumbering through a string of forgettable love interests (Nicholas Braun and Colin Jost are in there somewhere), piling on jokes that have been done better on TV (“Sex and the City,” “Broad City,” “You’re the Worst,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schimdt”), and leapfrogging plot development in favor of Wilson hurling herself in front of cabs or into useless “girls just wanna have fun” montages.
However, there’s enough gags that do work, and enough stars (Johnson, Mann, Holm, Lacy, Manzoukas, Brie) who are affable and inherently hilarious enough to make this mediocre flick worthwhile.
Still, I can’t wait to see what Johnson could do with better material.
“How to Be Single” opens today nationwide.
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