It's Valentine's Day weekend, which means it's decreed by the powers that be that a romantic comedy must open in theaters. But this year's offering bills itself as a feminist spin on the norm: How to Be Single stars Fifty Shades of Grey's Dakota Johnson as a new college grad who decides to take a break from her longtime boyfriend Josh (Nicholas Braun) to Learn Who She Is, with the help of her sister, Meg (Leslie Mann), and a hard-partying new friend, Robin (Rebel Wilson).
But does How to Be Single succeed in its mission to be a different kind of rom-com? Vox culture writer Alex Abad-Santos and copy chief Tanya Pai discuss.
Is How to Be Single any good?
Alex: Oh boy.
Tanya: I mean, I didn't hate it, but I also wouldn't say it was empirically good. And I don't know that it did what it set out to do in terms of being a story of someone discovering how to be a strong, single woman.
Alex: I think it meant well, and there were parts that worked, in particular Dakota Johnson's performance. I believe Johnson is irrationally likable and has a knack for comedy. I maintain that she showed great comedic timing and delivery in Fifty Shades of Grey, and I will go down with that ship. The movie also veered away from a typical "happily ever after" ending; I'm just not sure the execution was successful.
Tanya: I agree with you on Johnson — there were moments when her natural charm and knack for comedy shone through in her character, Alice, like when she was bantering with successful single dad David (Damon Wayans Jr.) at the alumni function. But that just made her other "problems" harder to believe, like how her biggest "issue" was that she couldn't unzip her dress without a man around to help.
Alex: Can we talk about that? I have never had to unzip a dress. Is this a common problem? Do women often fall on the floor or onto pieces of furniture to unzip their dresses? Alice finally being able to zip up her dress was symbolic signal that the movie was moving on to another chapter.
Tanya: I can tell you definitively that I have never had that problem. Maybe I've been dressing myself wrong this whole time.
How is Rebel Wilson?
Alex: I think Rebel Wilson is basically "Rebel Wilson" at this point. Her character, Robin, could have been a continuation of Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect. It's a wonderful character, but it's a little shopworn at this point.
Tanya: I don't mind Rebel Wilson being "Rebel Wilson" so much, especially since she made me laugh a lot — but YMMV depending on your tolerance for vagina jokes.
What's your biggest complaint about the movie?
Alex: My main problem with the movie is that it feels like six different movies in one. It's a coming-of-age story. It's a story about living in New York. It's a story about parenthood. It's a story about dating. It's a story about friendship. It's a story about casual sex. The editing is really bizarre, and haphazard to the point where the movie is rushing to complete all of these stories in its final 20 minutes.
Tanya: Yeah, a lot of the storylines are really shoehorned in — after watching it we both said the movie felt endless, even though it was less than two hours long. Plus, it bothered me how the movie paid lip service to some more progressive storylines without actually pushing any boundaries. In the span of literally one scene, Alice's sister Meg goes from vowing to never have children because she doesn't want to devote her entire life to slaving over a tiny human (I'm paraphrasing, kinda) to deciding to have a child on her own via sperm donor, all due to the power of one (admittedly adorable) child.
I'm not saying that's a bad way to have a child or that a woman can't suddenly decide she wants one, but it's also completely okay to not want one! I don't think the "workaholic woman" story always has to end with the woman choosing romance and/or a family; there are plenty of other ways for a woman's life to be rich and fulfilling.
Plus, poor Alison Brie as Lucy, a woman who lives upstairs from the bar Alice and Robin frequent and who has some romantic travails of her own, is saddled with some of the laziest, most obnoxious female stereotypes out there: being obsessed with being in a relationship, making a giant photo album for her boyfriend of three weeks, having a complete meltdown when she gets dumped, etc. Brie, and the audience, deserves better.
Do you think How to Be Single is a conventional romantic comedy?
Tanya: It has many of the hallmarks of an ultra-traditional rom-com: hot, funny female protagonist who's nevertheless supposed to be "awkward" and unlucky in love despite the never-ending stream of sexy men around her. Plus, the zany, "unconventional"-looking best friend, the montage sequence, and so on. It tries to sell itself on its message being really different, but the trappings are so typical that watching it was kind of like eating barbecue chips when you usually go for Doritos — in the end, they're still both chip products that will probably give you high blood pressure.
Alex: People who go to see this movie definitely want chips. There is no egregious bait and switch; you're getting a conventional romantic comedy.
Is it different from a traditional rom-com in any meaningful ways?
Tanya: Well, the main difference is right there in the title. But it also contains some weird messaging around being single versus being alone. I'm kind of an introvert, so alone time is important to me, but I don't necessarily think wanting time away from being in a romantic relationship and wanting to "learn who you are" means you have to detach from your friends and family, or even avoid the occasional casual sexual encounter.
Alex: The only thing I think How to Be Single has going for it is that it's actually pretty sex-positive — a major upgrade from traditional rom-coms. It's refreshing to see a movie where people don't get punished for having sex, and sex isn't necessarily tethered to romance.
In that sense, How to Be Single seems pretty aware of the message rom-coms send out — there's some acknowledgment that though they deal with topics like dating, traditional romantic comedies aren't just fluff. They are commentaries on gender and relationships. And How to Be Single is cognizant of how big a part they play in our culture.
How to Be Single borrows a lot from Sex and the City, but it also takes pains to have the characters make fun of the show. Why?
Alex: Sex and the City suffers because it wrapped itself in of-the-moment references and a wildly unrealistic portrayal of financial stability. The financial collapse and recession of 2007-'08 changed the way we view spending, and pop culture is not exempt. Fairly or unfairly, the financial collapse affected real people, and it made Sex and The City — which ended in 2004 — seem frivolous and out of touch in retrospect. That's true both in how the show deals with money and in how it portrays the characters and their lives.
There's been backlash ever since.
Tanya: It's almost like hating on Sex and the City has become something of a cottage industry. I get it — what was groundbreaking at the time now seems rather hopelessly backward and almost criminally materialistic. Still, How to Be Single is basically the same as Sex and the City, so trashing the show while not offering anything that meaningfully differentiates the movie feels a little unfair.
Does the movie enforce or reject traditional gender roles?
Alex: Since Sex and the City, pop culture has embraced the practice of portraying women as four archetypes — better known to Sex and the City viewers as the Carrie, the Samantha, the Miranda, and the Charlotte. But the trend dates back much further than Sex and the City; The Golden Girls had Blanche, Rose, Dorothy, and Sophia, and Designing Women had Suzanne, Charlene, Julia, and Mary Jo.
Libby Hill (who's married to Vox culture editor Todd VanDerWerff) points this out in a great essay for the AV Club:
Female social circles, particularly on sitcoms, are often represented in groups of four, which then break down personality-wise into the following established female archetypes, which I’ll call the Slattern, the Simpleton, the Cynic, and the Center. The personality traits are broad, but consistent, and recur in show after show.
How to Be Single follows these archetypes to a fault.
Tanya: The more I thought about that after watching the movie, the more those archetypes emerged. As you said, it's refreshing that the movie takes a generally positive view of sex, but it's also a shame that it's trying to paint itself as so far beyond Sex and the City while also fitting its characters neatly into the same old boxes.
What about the men in the movie?
Tanya: The male characters also fit the same archetypes, though not quite as neatly. Goofy but well-meaning Ken (Jake Lacy), who romances Meg, is the simpleton; commitment-phobic bartender Tom (Anders Holm) is the slattern; David is the cynic; and Alice's ex, Josh, is the center. Holm's performance is solid, but his Workaholics comedy chops are nowhere to be seen, and as the womanizer who finds he really does want to settle down, he suffers from a bland, clichéd storyline.
Wayans and Johnson have some great chemistry, but David's story sort of comes out of nowhere and is the one that feels the most rushed to wrap up in the end. Mostly, though, the men serve as symbols of the various things the female foursome is seeking — comfort, stability, rebound sex, what have you.
Alex: One thing I enjoyed about How to Be Single was its realistic, almost too realistic, expectation of male bodies. Tom is teetering on dad bod and is allegedly the sex symbol of this movie, which I think is all you need to know.
Tanya: Yet another example of Hollywood beauty standards being very different for men than for women. But I think there's actually more male nudity than female — we see a guy's naked butt in one scene, and the men are shirtless far more often than the women.
Alex: That is true! Let's be clear, though. In terms of objectifying the male form, Deadpool has How to Be Single beat.
Who is How to Be Single really for?
Alex: One of the things that puzzles about this movie is who it thinks its audience is. Some parts of it are creaky — like a "cool mom" or "cool dad" writing what they think millennials are like. Then it shifts into Meg's story and adopts this almost satirical voice, taking the point of view of someone who has a bone to pick with women who choose their career over children. That's why this movie is like six different movies wrapped up in one and why it's sort of confusing as to who it's aimed at. Clearly, screenwriters Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein, and Dana Fox have written How to Be Single for women, but each one seems to have a different and rigid view of their audience.
Tanya: It was hard not to pretend that Dakota Johnson's character was Fifty Shades of Grey's Anna "on a break" from Christian and letting herself live the fun single life in the city. So maybe How to Be Single is for people who just can't wait until Fifty Shades Darker comes out in 2017?
Seriously, though, all the main actresses — Johnson, Wilson, Mann, Brie — are so winning on their own that the idea of a movie where they storm New York City as a foursome has a ton of promise. Sadly, with certain moments aside, I think the traditional rom-com format steamrolled a lot of that potential.
How to Be Single is in theaters now.