Not to brag, but I have a personal connection to this movie. Last spring, I came home to a note on my front door that said there would be filming in the building. I was a fan of many of the listed actors and I was determined to see at least one star, particularly Dakota Johnson, who had impressed me on Ben & Kate. To a lesser degree, I was also excited to see the final project. Romantic comedies–let alone good ones–haven’t been easy to come by since their ’90s heyday. And while How to Be Single maybe isn’t as good as Sleepless in Seattle or One Fine Day, it’s still really enjoyable.
While Johnson’s Alice is the main character, she’s a little less prominent than the trailers suggest. Instead, the film is an ensemble piece, with a group of loosely connected characters trying to find love in New York City. A lot of movies have tried to recreate Love Actually’s particular brand of magic, but this is one of the few that nearly gets it. However, the goal here is more raunchy laughs than sentimental romance.
While much of the humor comes from the dialogue, it’s mostly made up of these incredible word-vomit monologues instead of jokes. In one scene, Leslie Mann’s Meg talks to a smiling baby, insulting it one second and giving into its cuteness the next. It’s awkward and absurd and a wonderful bit of acting that’s only surpassed by Alison Brie as Lucy. After yet another romantic disappointment, Lucy has a full breakdown as she reads a fairytale to a group of children. As her eyes grow wide with fury, Lucy goes from bitter ramblings to literally trying to cut her Spanks with plastic kids’ scissors. It’s by far the film’s best moment.
To her credit, Johnson keeps up with her more experienced counterparts. Watching her, it’s difficult not to compare her to her mother, Melanie Griffith. She has the same easy sex appeal and internal complexity with perhaps a sharper sense of comedic timing. While she has some funny moments (a bit of physical comedy where she struggles to unzip her dresses is one of the film’s best running jokes) her character is really the film’s emotional center and she delivers probably the most complete performance.
See, big ensemble movies always run into the same problems: none of the stories quite gets its due and character development can feel somewhat cursory. That’s especially true of Damon Wayans Jr.’s David. His character dates Johnson’s for three months and yet their relationship probably amounts to 5 minutes of screentime. We learn about his painful past through clunky dialogue and while his story is given resolution, it’s difficult not to wonder what he could have done with a whole movie to explore the character.
Still, for a movie that’s built largely on rom-com tropes, it’s actually surprising how much they avoid cliché. While some of the relationships end exactly as expected (Leslie Mann and Jake Lacy’s cougar/secret pregnancy plot), others defy the usual patterns. Anders Holm’s bartender character Tom interacts with nearly every major female character, but ends the film alone because–true to its title–the movie is just as much about learning to be alone as coupling. It leaves room for stories outside the usual rom-com narratives. Sometimes the guy who got away isn’t as perfect as he is in memories. Sometimes people self-sabotage a relationship beyond the point of salvation. And sometimes you find the person you were looking for when you least expect it.
I did eventually run into Dakota Johnson, by the way. I wasn’t even trying. Instead, I was coming home from work one day, a bag of take-out in hand, when she rounded a corner on the way to her trailer. She must have noticed my surprise because she gave me a demure smile as she passed and I barely had time to register it before she was gone. It was a surreal, perfect meet-cute—almost like something out of movie.