Valentine’s Day, known to many as either the great holiday of chocolate and love, or as the one of “loneliness” and self loathing. In this critical time, in which you decide of how to celebrate this occasion, you usually are filled with images of what the holiday should be like. And no, I’m not talking about the advertisements found in magazines or Target commercials. Nope, I am talking about the famous, or infamous (depending on your definition) genre known as the Romantic “Chick Flick”. In 2016, Hollywood has given you two films to choose from – the annual Nicolas Sparks offering (The Choice) or the alternative programming, AKA How to be Single. And since I don’t hate myself enough to watch another Sparks adaptation, I went with what was behind curtain number 2. The results? Let’s take a look at what we’ve got here.
How to be Single is the story of Alice (Dakota Johnson), 2016’s version of the typical single white 20-something. She’s a graduate of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl school, except in this story, Alice isn’t the object of anyone’s current affections, because she decided to “take a break” from her college sweetheart of four years. As part of her new lifestyle, Alice moves to New York City, makes friends (including Rebel Wilson) and explores the bumpy road of sex and romance at such an emotional, vulnerable time in her life.
From the start, Single makes an attempt at becoming something greater than its Rom-Com peers, and though at times that wish is granted, it doesn’t mean that the movie as a whole is the generation changing cinematic piece that it would like to be. For starts, none of our characters are really anything to fuss over, particularly those that are clearly there to be eye candy and nothing more. But for the few roles that seem interesting, Single refuses to actually advance most of them past their initial description. That brings me into the roles that seemed to have the most potential, but were the film’s greatest failures.
For one, let’s start with one of Dakota Johnson’s many suitors – David, played by Damon Wayans Jr. David, out of all the male romantic leads, is by far the most successful. He’s intelligent, owns multiple buildings in the city, is a single dad with a beautiful little girl, and has a smile that could charm the socks right off of you. And maybe it was the alignment of the moon or something, but deep down in my head, I was truly hoping that this movie could, in fact, portray a decent, honest to god interracial relationship without falling into its own dumb tropes. But, in an attempt not to spoil, this movie doesn’t achieve those dreams of mine, and instead crushes them to a disappointing low that makes another case for Hollywood not getting how to handle a good relationship when it is staring them in the face.
The film’s other “victim” is Alison Brie’s Lucy. When going to film school, we are told to get rid of any extra baggage that could be weighing our piece down, and in the case of How to be Single, Lucy is that piece. Sure, many could make the argument that this movie is closer to those “anthology story” Rom-Coms like Gary Marshall’s Valentine’s Day or New Year’s Eve. But at least those two films, as unpolished and grotesque as they are at times, do in fact connect all their stories together. But with Single, it has no concept on how Lucy really factors into the bigger picture, and if she had been removed, along with the subplot involving her and Tom (Anders Holm) nothing would be missed from the end product. Which is a shame, considering that Alison Brie is a treasure to the genre, and that her character (a computer wizard who reads children’s books for a living) seemed way cooler and interesting than Alice (the basic lawyer-in-training) would ever be.
And then there’s Alice. Excluding the fact that this is the best work Dakota Johnson has done thus far in her very short career, Alice is a character that if I could murder her with a kitchen knife, I would do easily. For as much progression this movie attempts to make for female characters (and does successfully with Rebel Wilson’s Robin) screenwriters Kohn, Silverstein, and Fox make Alice continuously, throughout the film, take two steps forward and backward at a rapid pace. What I mean by that can be explained in two simple scenes: One, in which Alice cries over a breakup, makes her say a line that basically admits that she “has to be in a relationship” because otherwise she “won’t know how to work the internet modem.” The other comes shortly after, when her ex-boyfriend Josh stops by, and “fixes her TV” by simply turning off the Spanish Closed Captions – a thing she found impossible to accomplish herself. Movie, I get that you are trying to write a character with flaws, but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice her basic intelligence to prove that point.
But even with those flaws, there’s a lot to be said for How to be Single, and in the best of ways. I always find myself being concerned that any movie shown on Valentine’s Day will lead to the typical Hollywood rules, where single characters are indeed punished for their crime of wanting to be alone. But refreshingly, this is a movie that doesn’t allow itself to make its characters feel bad for not finding romance at the end. In fact, many of its characters feel rewarded that they didn’t end up with any one of their potential candidates, and feel as if they aren’t missing out on anything. How this movie even got the green light during a season known for its commercial view of the holiday is anyone’s guess, but I love it regardless.
Overall, How to be Single is a nice little movie that, though a fairy tale of gigantic proportions (much like the heavily referenced Sex in the City), does some nice changes to a genre that has been plagued with over-saturation for the past 20-something years. And though its progress might be baby steps at best, it is nice to know there are people trying to write movies out there for women that aren’t the cookie cutter things they’re used to around this specific season. Still better than a Nicolas Sparks movie, How to be Single is the kind of counter programming one needs between their first and last box of chocolates. Sweet, slightly sinful, but satisfying none the less.