Christian Ditter's unfocused four-woman comedy How to Be Single needs a point -- or really, punctuation. Is it declarative — How to Be Single! — an exuberant manual with which Robin (Rebel Wilson) teaches naive New Yorker Alice (Dakota Johnson), a girl so used to having a boyfriend that she can't even unzip her own dress? (Step 1: take a stranger home every night.) Is it an afterthought — How to Be [Single] — an indifference that crept up on Alice's older sister Meg (Leslie Mann), a doctor who prefers a sperm donor to dating? Or is it a lament — How to Be Single? — a trial that Lucy (Alison Brie) suffers as she sits alone on a barstool and sifts through 10 matchmaking apps?
How to Be Single wants to be smarter than the average rom-com. It wants to stick up for the girls who can clothe themselves. So while it looks and acts like Sex and the City on Adderall, every time there's a big, emotional speech — something no human would say in real life — Ditter gives it the finger. No cliché is safe. When Alice climbs into a taxi after a moment of enlightenment and beams, "I'm finally going home," the camera basks in her joy for three seconds. Then the cabbie kills the mood: "Woman. I don't know where the fuck you live."
But, like Alice's first conquest, the bartender (Anders Holm) who keeps his kitchen sink turned off so last night's hungover babe can't linger for a glass of water, the script can't commit. Instead of being subversive, it's overcrowded and contradictory. Ditter wants to fit everybody's definition of single, from sad spinster Lucy to sex-crazy Robin, and shoves in so many subplots and subpar boyfriends that the movie feels like 90 minutes speed-flicking through Tinder.
Groan and swipe left. We've seen too many female characters like Lucy and Robin, electrons who must pair off or explode, as Lucy does in a kiddie bookstore, ripping out her extensions, clawing off her Spanx, and terrifying a flock of children who just wanted to hear another fairy tale about a princess and her prince. (Sweetie, the solution isn't marriage — it's a mental institution.) Even the patron saints of singledom, Carrie Bradshaw and Bridget Jones, were desperate. As Meg groans, "All those girls ever did was look for boyfriends." Modern updates like Trainwreck's Amy Schumer, or Rebel Wilson in, well, everything, equate single with slutty. Here, Wilson would rather wake up with a goon than wake up alone, and hits the club wearing a dress with an arrow pointed at her crotch. But this concept of single still assumes that a woman must have a man, that a girl's only choice is between one boyfriend or 20.
The movie barely has time for its most original character: Alice, who dumps her nice but dull college boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) to move to Manhattan and find herself. This is harder than you'd think. Hell, she's not even sure of her own name. "Alice ... Kepley?" she blushes, shaking hands with a handsome stranger (Damon Wayans Jr.) at a networking event. Worse, she's too used to having a guy, a weakness Wilson calls her on when she points out that Alice spent her Big Year of Singledom fixated on men — something we wish the movie would have done an hour earlier.
Johnson is hilarious at playing helpless. She turned 50 Shades of Grey into a comedy — a genius choice when you're stuck playing a hogtied moron. In Single, her Alice is so passive that when a date drags her to an abandoned building that looks like a serial killer's apartment, she calmly accepts her own murder. "Close your eyes," he orders. "OK," Alice smiles, "Bye!"
I'd watch a whole movie of Rebel teaching Alice to conquer New York, and it should have been this one. But while their best friendship is the only love story that matters, Ditter zips through all of their good scenes in montages. Thankfully, the boys who keep barging in are funny, especially Jason Mantzoukas's cruelly sarcastic bookstore clerk, and Jake Lacy as a 24-year-old himbo receptionist who tries to woo Meg.
Alas, like its heroines, How to Be Single doesn't know its own mind. It's like a cynic who swears she doesn't believe in marriage but secretly scribbles her crush's name all over her notebook. Ditter's wannabe subversive romantic comedy is smart enough to make Alice ask, "Why do we always tell our stories through relationships?" But its only answer is, "Um, what else is there?"