How to be Single – and How to Disappoint Your Target Audience

I went to “How to be Single” on Valentine’s Day. I went with two girlfriends, a tote bag full of Reese’s hearts, and the kind of spectacular hangover-to-end-all-hangovers that blindsides me about once a year. Target audience? I THINK SO. In fact, I saw the trailer in the fall and was so excited that I might have marked my calendar for its theatrical release in February. “How to be Single” not only seemed like a movie I could relate to and enjoy (unlike, say, “Bridesmaids,” which looked too gross and cynical for my taste), but it was one of several women-made, women-centric comedies that, whether they seemed like my taste or not, I was really encouraged to see coming out in force this past year.

As it turned out, “How to be Single” was a fun movie, but it didn’t live up to expectations. In fact, I discovered that part of the reason I was so excited for its release was that, in a classic Hollywood move, all the best bits were stuffed into the trailer while the movie took on a different tone altogether. I expected, for example, a far more sustained and significant role for comic relief Rebel Wilson, who was unsurprisingly the best part of the movie by a long shot. I did NOT expect to be subjected to cheesy narration, and I didn’t appreciate the storylines that went in bizarre and unfulfilling directions, albeit in an attempt to avoid predictability across the board. The movie was billed as the story of recent college graduate Alice (Dakota Johnson), who breaks up with her boyfriend and promptly meets Party Girl Robin (Rebel Wilson), who decides to teach her how to be single in New York City. And for a little while, it seemed like that story was on track – but soon the movie spawned a variety of under-connected B plots and characters that never really come together in a logical way and impaired the viewer’s ability to truly connect with any of them. Equally underwhelming was the way in which the various female experiences with singlehood were portrayed. On the one hand, the filmmakers attempted to avoid certain obvious clichés (of course, they would have been morons if they fell for the most obvious cliché and tucked all the women into relationships at the end). On the other hand, the characters were based on tired “types.” Types are hard for writers to avoid, and they can work out splendidly when the right amount of subtle humanity is brought to the role (reference: “Mean Girls”). Unfortunately, we didn’t get any subtle humanity (except, perhaps, from Rebel Wilson), thanks in no small part to the lack of cohesiveness in the plot itself. I’m left ambivalent.

The main unfulfilling storyline is that of Lucy (Alison Brie), aka “The Type-A Girl Who Just Wants to Find a Perfect Husband.” She pursues her goal scientifically via dating apps and spreadsheets, yet appears poised from the very beginning to end up with Player Bartender Tom (Anders Holm), who reinforces that assumption by falling in love with her halfway through the movie. However, in the end Lucy winds up engaged to Geeky Weirdo George (Jason Mantzoukas), whom we don’t even meet until more than halfway through the movie and who blindsides Hot Bartender at the climactic party scene with an overprotective kidding/not-kidding exchange that is just as confusing to the audience as it is to the crestfallen heir apparent, with little comedic benefit. Clearly the screenwriters were trying to avoid the stereotype ending with this storyline, but unfortunately the chosen alternative just felt clumsy and disappointing; you could have had Hot Bartender Who Turns Out to be a Nice Guy, and you take Random Weirdo whom we never get to know at all? Well, have it your way, girl…a statement which, I guess, encapsulates more reality than the usual Hollywood way – but movies aren’t meant to be a stark play-by-play of the everyday realities that perplex us. A good movie leaves its audience feeling enlightened or intrigued by new insights into the day-to-day – and if you’re not going to do that, Movie, then the least you can do is indulge me with the kind of happy tropes that keep us all slinking back to our favorite rom coms on a rainy day. I’m sure George could have won us over if he’d had a chance to develop as a character, but he didn’t. We were left perplexed.

Then there’s Alice’s older sister, Meg (Leslie Mann): The One Who Pretends She’s All About Her Career (because we all know that a workaholic woman who thinks she doesn’t want babies just hasn’t spent enough time with babies yet…even if she’s an obstetrician…). And in that trope I find my own nudge of resentment despite some inclination to defend the movie for at least taking on the difficult task of representing a variety of female experiences. Sadly, good intentions aside, I think the filmmakers might have just managed to deliver a wide enough variety of stereotypes that everyone in the theater found at least one storyline that really made them bristle. And I wouldn’t be surprised if this particular storyline made the most people bristle, not necessarily because of Meg’s about-face realization that she was lying to herself about not wanting children (which is what piqued my own resistance) but because of what happened after she decided to have a baby via in-vitro fertilization – namely, her random meeting of the incredibly hunky, much younger Lawyer Boy Ken (Jake Lacy), who actually wants nothing more than to be a stay-at-home dad and proceeds to jump excitedly on board with her life. Where are those guys again? Who in the real New York City has ever met one?? I think this plot was just bound to come across to many women as yet another unrealistic ideal that reads as expectation. For my part, admittedly, I did not feel that familiar sense of semi-subliminal pressure to fit into the unrealistic picture presented. I actually felt like I could choose how I wanted to interpret this particular scenario: as one more slap in the face to real-life women facing real-life situations, or as a refreshingly female-oriented fantasy projected onto the big screen of pop culture. Whether it’s my own personal fantasy or not (not…exactly), there is something exciting and even revolutionary about seeing a storyline in a mainstream comedy that revolves, for once, not around some shlubby dude’s tired fantasy of his unremarkable self winning over the hot girl, but around a successful, clearly non-adolescent female walking away with a hot, younger and truly nice guy. That’s a fantasy I can get behind – as long as we keep it accordingly in its place of recognized absurdity. Still, it’s fair for women to react with groans and eye-rolls, and I may have done so myself if I were, like many peers, a single woman more attuned to the ticking of my own biological clock.

As for our protagonist, her journey felt disjointed, and her sort of unremarkable, anodyne personality (not to mention, again, the lame narration) did nothing to help me connect or care. A few times, the plot skipped ahead by several months. I think skipping time is hard to pull off in any cinematic context, and it definitely felt misplaced here. Further damaging the cohesion of the story, the proliferation of under-connected side characters made it hard to develop a clear sense of investment in Alice herself, while the variety of men in her life made it hard to connect with any one of them either. (Every character showed up at her birthday party at the end of the movie, but I was confused about how some of them even got there.) Meanwhile, Alice’s own subplots, particularly her short-lived but full-on relationship with single dad David (Damon Wayans Jr.), took her away from Robin, as far as we could see, for long enough that I was almost surprised when Robin showed up again at the end as Alice’s stated “best friend.”

At the end of the day, I’m a sucker for cinema, and I had a good time watching the movie despite its flaws. I appreciated the attempt to portray a variety of modern situations featuring single women, however superficially they were ultimately treated, and I hope more movies will do a better job with the same aim. It’s about time we significantly diversify the media portrayal of modern womanhood and recognize the actual array of female experiences in the present day. Let’s keep it going – but improving.

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