Every few years, at least a couple of channels attempt to mount an ongoing romantic comedy through the sitcom format. It almost never works; the kind of satisfying closure (or even satisfying lack of closure) that helps push a rom-com into collective memories is automatically delayed and delayed on a sitcom—indefinitely, or at least until it’s produced enough rom for syndication money. Though subplot romances (like The Office’s Jim and Pam) have had better luck, the real area where TV shows have it all over movies is pre-romantic: comedies about all the stuff that happens long before (and, ok, maybe eventually during) the protagonists’ tumble into a happy ending. Whatever your feelings about Sex and the City (and mine are: I’d much rather hang out with Liz Lemon), that show captured the single-and-searching vibe far more vividly, for a lot of people, than just about any movie of its day. Girls, too, revived and revised the NYC singleton dynamic, relocating to Brooklyn like everyone else (but hardly anyone on Sex would, at least not until children were involved) and going from there.
I’m loathe to compare movies to TV, but here I am doing it because I just saw How to Be Single, which very much invites it.
Not just because it evokes a lighter, less substantial version of Girls or Sex and the City, R-rated but mostly just so Rebel Wilson can say “fuck” and “dick” a bunch; not even because the movie goes so far as to namecheck Sex and the City when Meg (Leslie Mann) warns her younger sister Alice (Dakota Johnson) about getting “all hopped up on Sex and the City and Bridget Jones.” (Though Alice is 22 or 23, she politely fails to call out an obvious age gap; it makes sense to hear Leslie Mann make those references, because she was in her twenties and thirties when they were current touchstones. The Hollywood age math here is typically bizarre, casting Johnson and Mann, who are seventeen years apart in real life, as sisters—then aging Johnson down by four or five years to make her a recent college grad, but keeping Mann a minimum of ten years older by making her a not-super-young working doctor.) There’s also the fact that nearly the entire cast was on one network sitcom or another in the year 2013 (Happy Endings, Community, Ben and Kate, and The Mindy Project) and that the movie, a year-ish in the post-college life of Alice and some tangentially related people, awkwardly takes place over the amount of time that a sitcom might chronicle more easily.
Indeed, if you’re looking for real insight into twentysomethings making their way through New York with a helping of Jake Lacy on the side, the fifth season of Girls premieres very soon. How to Be Single announces itself as very much not Girls early on, when a wistful Alice asks her Wesleyan boyfriend for some break time so she can move to New York and find herself, on her own—and, more specifically, when she cabs it into Manhattan with Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York” antheming it up on the soundtrack, in a scene that should embarrass any actor over the age of, let’s say, twenty (I realize that counting this as a point of departure from Girls might seem odd given Swift’s apparent real-life friendship with Lena Dunham, but I like to think that, at minimum, Dunham the showrunner and Hannah Horvath the character might have better taste in Swift songs than “Welcome to New York”). Actually, the trouble starts before that, when the movie introduces its characters with a haphazard lack of context—a lack of editing deftness that would never fly on HBO.
And yet: after Alice moves to New York, gets a job as a paralegal, meets her new wacky best friend Robin (Rebel Wilson), goes to a bar tended by Tom (Anders Holm) and attended by neighboring Lucy (Alison Brie), and participates in a beat-the-hangover rush scene that makes zero sense (she wakes up at her sister’s apartment, where she’s living, and stumbles out the door to go get ready for work… somewhere else?)… after all that, How to Be Single does a weird thing and flirts with getting kind of good.
Not uniformly, mind: Wilson, who has been very funny elsewhere, goes into antics overdrive, this close to actually parodying the outrageous-sidekick role, but sadly content to wreak cartoon destruction and spout quasi-random dick jokes. The movie mistakes this for comedy about female friendship, but Wilson never connects with anyone on screen; she blasts past them. Worse, poor Alison Brie is stuck in a subplot that acts, for most of its screentime, like something out of one of those Garry Marshall holiday movies—and, as it turns out, two Valentine’s Day writers are credited here, perhaps doing singleton penance for all of that movie’s aggressive coupling. At least Brie’s thin thread about the Type A lady on a husband hunt facing cynicism from a charming cad (Holm) doesn’t exactly settle for predictability—though that doesn’t fully redeem the middling execution or the waste of Brie’s comic talents on a Marshall-ready breakdown scene where she works herself into a Spanx-tearing furor.
But! But! When Dakota Johnson gets the chance, she can be a winning light-comic heroine. This was even true in a few scenes of Fifty Shades of Grey, to which this movie feels like an alternate-world sequel. Instead of getting involved with a creepy billionaire, what if Anastasia Steele decamped for NYC and had relatively mild adventures as a single lady. Once the movie’s incompetently delivered set-up is through, Johnson seems to relax into her smallness (every dude in the movie towers over her), tossing off dialogue about spoiling a future niece of nephew with a kind of wistful laziness.
Her gradual relaxation is likely an illusion, of course; the movie was probably not shot in sequence. But the later scenes do give Johnson some space. Director Christian Ditter practically moons over her, his camera trying to capture that hopeful burnished New York City glow whenever she’s on her own in the frame. It’s not really enough to support a whole movie; nor is Jake Lacy’s funny turn as an unexpected beau for Mann; nor is the movie’s consistently surprising insistence that it really is going to be about being single, not being single on the way to finding true love. But if none of these things are really good enough to make How to Be Single more than a little mini-show to be enjoyed on cable in a couple of years, they are all significantly charming—and charm for a rom-com (in this case, a comedy about romance, rather than a comedy about a romance) counts for a lot. As such, when it the time comes to trot out some sentiment, about two-thirds of it actually kind of works, especially when it actually focuses on singlehood, not romantic destiny. It’s not enough to make you forget about Girls, but it might be enough to let you ignore “Welcome to New York.”