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How to Be Single: Refreshing film breaks up with romcom fundamentals

Anders Holm, left, as Tom and Alison Brie as Lucy in How to Be Single, a refreshingly unconventional romantic comedy, particularly for one released by a major studio.

JoJo Whilden/Warner Bros. Pictures

2 out of 4 stars

Written by
Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein, Dana Fox
Directed by
Christian Ditter
Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Leslie Mann

Few templates are as reliably rote as that which constitutes the Hollywood romantic comedy. If it's recently become fashionable to tweak the form's key tropes (as in Pitch Perfect's gender-swapped, girl-woos-boy grand gesture), rarely are romcoms brave enough to do away with those elements entirely. This holds especially true for the genre's obligatory climactic couplings and happily-ever-after conclusions. Even last summer's Trainwreck, written by and starring the irreverent Amy Schumer, curtailed its protagonist's proud promiscuity in favour of a strikingly normative monogamous pairing.

Conceptually then, the celebration of emotional independence at the centre of How to Be Single is refreshingly unconventional, particularly for a film released by a major studio. Shrewdly packaged as progressive counterprogramming to traditional love-conquers-all Valentine's Day fare, this loose adaptation of Liz Tuccillo's 2008 novel exhorts its young female target audience to cherish singlehood as a precious opportunity for self-discovery. In practice, however, the blandness of the film's execution tempers the praise it's owed for the relative boldness of its themes.

Tuccillo served as executive story editor on Sex and the City and that pedigree was evident in her subsequent book, which was premised on the relational travails of a circle of single New Yorkers. This adaptation distills that essence further, dispensing with Tuccillo's globetrotting A-plot to focus on four unattached Manhattan professionals, each with her own strategy for navigating the city's dating scene. And while that formula worked well enough for HBO's seminal series, here, packed into 110 minutes, the result is a disjointed roundelay of romantic entanglements, populated by thinly conceived types rather than fully realized characters.

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The woman that comes closest to meeting that standard is Alice (50 Shades of Grey star Dakota Johnson), a recent college grad who decides she needs a break from her long-term boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) to sample the single life before, she presumes, she'll return to him for good. She decamps to the dating mecca that is the Big Apple, crashing with her older sister, Meg (Leslie Mann), a never-married, fortysomething obstetrician straining to suppress her maternal yearnings.

Alice quickly finds work as a paralegal, a plot point that proves entirely immaterial save that it introduces her to fellow employee Robin (Rebel Wilson), and lends the faintest credibility to the fact that she's soon able to rent a place of her own with a handsome Brooklyn Bridge view. Wilson plays, as ever, a ribald party girl whose hedonistic tips on hook-ups and hangover recovery represent the film's eager stabs at comic relief. Rounding out the principle quartet is Lucy (Alison Brie), a woman engaged in a methodical, statistics-driven search for Mr. Right, who maintains profiles on 10 separate dating sites and who lives above Robin's happy-hour haunt.

By the time How to Be Single has introduced love interests for Alice, Meg and Lucy (Robin is strictly the hit-it-and-quit-it sort), reintroduced Alice's ex, and cultivated subplots involving IVF, a Tinder-addicted bartender and a widowed single dad, it achieves an unwelcome resemblance to 2010's trite mega-ensemble piece Valentine's Day (with which it shares two screenwriters). Unlike that omnibus of noxious sentimentality, though, How to Be Single at least marshals its surfeit of incident in service of a point of view that prizes individual fulfillment – in whatever form that may take – over idealized portrayals of courtship and coupledom. However clumsily delivered, it remains a message worth taking to heart.

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