Friday, September 9, 2016

Okay With Being "Single"

Romantic comedies tend to be dismissed without a thought these days, and that's a shame, because there are some perfectly decent ones still being made. Take "How to Be Single," an energetic, breezy bit of feminine feel-good fluff which is chiefly concerned with the experience of being a single, eligible woman in New York City. A familiar premise, yes, but not yet totally played out. The talent is very strong, the writing is a little sharper than most recent rom-coms, and it's much more self-aware. I also really appreciated that though romance is a chief concern throughout, the majority of the main characters get their happy endings without ending up in romantic relationships.

Our central character is Alice (Dakota Johnson), who is a newly graduated newcomer to New York, and has only had one, serious, long-term relationship. She's quickly befriended by Robin (Rebel Wilson), who goes out every night, loves one-night stands, and is eager to help Alice with her love life. Then there's Lucy (Alison Brie), who is perhaps a little too desperate to find the right guy, and has just moved into an apartment over the bar run by Tom (Anders Holm), who prefers casual sex with no strings attached. Finally there's OB/GYN Meg (Leslie Mann), who resists, but ultimately gives in to her biological clock, and decides to have a baby via in vitro fertilization. Unfortunately, she meets the genial Ken (Jake Lacy) right after getting pregnant. Damon Wayans, Nicholaus Braun, Jason Mantzoukas, and Colin Jost are also part of the ensemble as assorted love interests and potential partners.

There is absolutely nothing original about any of "How to Be Single." You can see the empowerment and self-love and sisterhood themes from a mile off, and it's only subversive in the gentlest, most palatable ways. However, it's also refreshingly non-judgmental about the characters' lifestyles and choices. Robin is at least as self-destructive as Amy Schumer's character in last year's "Trainwreck," but is not obliged for a moment to mend her ways or feel any shame about it. Meg's transition from childfree to mommy-to-be is her own choice rather than a societal expectation. Alice and Lucy make the same beginner's mistakes that everyone does, but the films lets them happen naturally, largely without manufactured dramatics. There are all the usual unrealistic romantic tropes in abundance, but there's also a nice level-headedness to the stories. X gets together with Y, but it doesn't work out. A dashes B's hopes, but isn't punished for choosing C. And when B and X have an unplanned one-night stand, that's all it is. Everyone moves on and mostly acts like a mature adult.

And I can't stress enough how good it is to see four genuinely funny leading ladies given ample opportunity to be funny. This is not particularly good or interesting material, but it's enough. Rebel Wilson gets to rock her slapstick. Leslie Mann plays middle-aged sad sack like no one else. Alison Brie's type A control freak is remarkably endearing. And then there's Dakota Johnson, who I haven't seen in anything else, and found to be a very sweet and lively presence here. I really hope she survives the "Fifty Shades" franchise and goes on to better things. The supporting cast is also a lot of fun, particularly Jake Lacy and Anders Holm, who bring some welcome silliness to familiar male types. I could have used some more development for some of the other guys, though, who we barely get to know.

I admit that I haven't been watching mainstream romantic comedies much lately, so I don't know how much the status quo has been shifting. However, it seems like the romance is reflecting reality more. There's clearly influence starting to filter in from television and independent features, which have been handling these topics better. The chats about sex and relationships are franker and more realistic. The characters have a wider variety of choices that reflect different values. "How to Be Single" feels like a movie made for Millennials in 2016, even though it hangs on to some of the same old idealistic rhetoric that was stale when "Sex and the City" did it. Really, that closing monologue could have been delivered by Sarah Jessica Parker in her sleep.

So, the studios haven't quite caught up to "Girls," but that's not a bad thing. The best thing I can say about the movie is that it's genuinely entertaining, and not in a guilty pleasure way. I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish, and that hasn't been true of any studio rom-com for me in a long time. There's a lot of room for improvement, but it feels like this is a movie that just might be steering its battered genre back in the right direction. Here's hoping that it's not just a fluke.


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