Thursday, February 11, 2016

"How to be Single": A Troubling, Tangled Mess

In Theaters on February 12, 2016

It would be really easy to dismiss How to be Single as just a bit of harmless chick flick fun, but the more I think about it the more I really dislike much of what this film supposedly has going for it.  Regardless of whether you think the film is particularly funny or not, it’s an absolute clusterfuck of plotlines and a demonstration of sexual attitudes that I realistically know are normal for the average twenty-something but are still depressing nevertheless.  And the saddest thing is that there is actually a premise in there with some potential that gets grossly overshadowed by meaningless distractions.

This premise comes in the form of Alice (Dakota Johnson, proving that she is not well suited to comedy), a woman who has never been single who decides to take a break with her longtime boyfriend, only to discover that when she wants to reunite he has moved on.  Now she has to try to discover who she is without the influence of a relationship.  That’s actually a very empowering theme that I would have loved to see the film commit fully to, but it doesn’t get to that conclusion until the very end, forcing Alice to muddle through missing her ex and having a casual sexual partner and dating another man, all of whom are severely underdeveloped so as to be little more than plot device stepping stones that ultimately lead to the same place the single break-up could have.  Alice herself doesn’t even get that much development, instead having the film’s moral explained to her via dialogue without undergoing an on-screen character arc until a montage in the film’s final moments.

You may also notice that there are three other women on the movie poster, and every single one of them has an in-depth subplot that is either entirely unnecessary or completely overemphasized.  Alison Brie plays a woman who desperately wants a boyfriend and then eventually gets one, and also has next to nothing to do with the rest of the main cast.  Rebel Wilson plays a party girl who is mainly there to spout gross one-liners and has a forced strained-friendship arc with Alice toward the end of the film.  Leslie Mann is a career-oriented woman who decides she wants to have a baby, only to fall in love with a guy after inseminating herself with donor sperm, which feels like it would have been better served in a separate movie altogether rather than as one of a ridiculous number of subplots in this one.  It furthermore doesn’t help that none of these characters has room to develop beyond being defined by their relationship with men (or with motherhood), completely undermining the central thesis of the title that there is value in having a singular identity.

But a lot of folks will probably just want to know whether the film is funny or not, and your mileage may vary.  I’ve never been a fan of Rebel Wilson’s gross-out shock humor, and if the laughs in my theater were any indication, the general reaction is lukewarm.  There were two scenes that legitimately made me laugh, but they were brief and didn’t save what was ultimately a pretty slow film.  A lot of what is supposed to pass as comedy is based on stereotypes of how men and women supposedly act, and often the women in this film come across as naïfs subject to the manipulative influence of men in ways that are not only condescending but also legitimately creepy.  A good example is a joke about how a certain number of drinks will lead two people of the opposite sex to fuck no matter what, and as Alice counts the final requisite drink she has had with a guy, she pounces on him in full vigor like subject to a law of physics.  Given the real-world implications of alcohol in a sexual atmosphere and a culture that esteems men for getting women drunk enough to conquer sexually, what was supposed to be a funny scene comes across as shockingly gross, and this is only one extreme example in a film full of tone-deaf moments.

This review is slightly longer than my normal word count, which you wouldn’t probably expect from a throwaway rom-com, but that’s a legitimate reflection of my problems with this film.  My worry is that a lot of people will go to this film and see their own sexual politics affirmed, and that’s just sad.  The fact the film is a structural mess that feels it necessary to tell rather than show only makes it worse, and the potential for a good story only makes it sadder.  Don’t see this one, even if only for stupid fun.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll only be disappointed: in the film, in yourself, in other moviegoers, in society as a whole.

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