‘How to Be Single’ Doesn’t Subvert The Rom-Com As Much As It Thinks It Does

The most popular moment in the packed screening of How to Be Single I attended this week involved a character played by Jake Lacy, the baby-faced actor who has basically become a stock “gentle feminist sex object” in rom-coms since his appearance in Obvious Child. Standing in a baby store and enthusiastically rhapsodizing about the possibility of life as a stay-at-home dad for a kid that isn’t even his, he compared playing with an infant all day while his high-powered partner worked and brought in cash to winning the lottery. Basically, he confessed, he wanted to be a wife. Throughout the theater, there were audible cheers and hoots at this line.

In the end, though, this momentary celebration of male caretaking desires was as subversive as the film ever got. Though How to Be Single clearly pats itself on the back for prioritizing female friendship and sisterhood over clichéd romantic tropes, in fact it’s just another confused, white-bread rom com with a few welcome nods in less traditional directions. This is just fine; not every comedy needs to be profound, and those nods were welcome. But feminist triumph it is not; instead, it it reads like a cross between those ensemble comedies/Love Actually ripoffs like New Year’s Day and Valentine’s Day cross-bred with a female version of a bromance starring Paul Rudd and Jason Siegel or Seth Rogen — with Fifty Shades‘ gorgeous Dakota Johnson and Pitch Perfect‘s game Rebel Wilson in the two lead roles.

The premise of the film indicates its overstuffed, overlong nature: Johnson’s single-gal character, Alice, on a break from a serious relationship that turns permanent, is initiated into the ways of the no-strings-attached New York City life by Wilson’s carefree Robin, with help from commitment-phobe bartender Tom (Anders Holm). Meanwhile Alice’s Ob-Gyn sister, played by Leslie Mann, decides to take a solo crack at parenthood, only for Lacy’s character to stumble drunkenly into her life and fall for her. Finally, Alison Brie’s Lucy — who lives upstairs from the bar where all these characters congregate, and who has caught Tom’s eye — obsessively tries to game online matchmaking with an algorithm and an endless series of dates.

It would have been better to stick with a tighter focus on the central two or three characters, allowing us to actually see their emotional development, a quality that the film simply gestures at by having them yell at each other at opportune moments (“You always do this when you’re with a guy!”). This is an unfortunate waste of talent. Wilson is a gifted physical comedian with great timing, if broad sensibilities, while Johnson is charming as can be. In fact, when she smiled and stuttered and acted generally awkward and adorable onscreen, I thought more than once of her mom Melanie Griffith’s similarly affable bashfulness in Working Girl, one of my favorite female-driven New York romantic and workplace comedies of all time.

Yet Working Girl is immortal because of its specificity. It’s so much better than this recent kind of formulaic, post Sex in the City style film at actually situating its characters in a time, place and milieu. How to Be Single makes the mistake of failing to give its people geographical and class-based identities that make sense and don’t appear out of nowhere, adding motivation and aspirations that are both unique to their circumstances and also symbolize universal yearnings for love and fulfillment.

How to Be Single is not in that excellent tradition, though it gestures plenty at such yearnings. Instead it’s another comedy about single folks in the big city (which could be any city) going through a series of holidays like Christmas and Valentine’s Day (and even St. Patrick’s Day for some reason?) with romantic pratfalls and the occasional earned big kiss.

Now let’s not be unfair: long live the right for female-driven comedy movies to be as silly and empty as their male counterparts. Besides a few cringe-inducing moments of homophobia and a mostly (but not entirely) white and bland canvas, there was nothing I could gauge that was deeply offensive in the film, and it featured its share of laughs, surprises and even genuinely winning moments. So I hope How to Be Single  grosses big and audiences enjoy the somewhat unexpected message of female solidarity and self-sufficiency that’s tacked on at the end.

But I would like it even more if a smarter, savvier team of filmmakers takes How to Be Single‘s themes — about friendship between women and about careers and about romance and the way these things interplay, often to the detriment of women’s sense of self-worth — and make an actually interesting movie with them someday. Here’s hoping.