Momentarily untied from "50 Shades of Grey" and its planned sequels, Dakota Johnson is again looking for love in "How to Be Single," a mild and fittingly discombobulated ode to singlehood that plays like a "Sex and the City" spinoff.
We're back in that rom-com bastion — New York: the fairy tale, cobblestoned version — with a quartet of female archetypes who live in questionably affordable Manhattan apartments, and in a story that revolves around one character (Johnson) prone to occasional inner-monologue narration. The connection isn't kismet; "How to Be Single" is based on the 2008 novel by Liz Tuccillo, a former "Sex and the City" writer.
But if the set-up is overly conventional, "How to Be Single" inverts some of the standard beats of the romantic comedy enough to give it a not-as-bad-as-you-expected charm derived considerably from its appealing cast.
"Why do we always tell our stories through relationships?" asks Alice (Johnson), at the film's start. She's a young paralegal who, fearful that she has missed out on "real life in the in-between moments" by always jumping from one relationship to another, tells her longtime boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) that they must split.
Hers is one of four approaches to single life. Providing raunchy humor and an over-the-top embrace of promiscuity is Alice's co-worker Robin (Rebel Wilson, spirited if overdoing it). Alice's older sister, an obstetrician named Meg (Leslie Mann), plays the part of the careerist woman pining for a baby. And then there's Lucy (Alison Brie), a picky, computer-dating, marriage-crazed woman who remains curiously unconnected to the others, an awkwardly added-on character in the script by Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein and Dana Fox.
The group is largely confined to the Meatpacking District, but their escapades are all over the map. There are the comic one-night stands of Robin, the pregnancy trials of Meg and Lucy's flirting with her frankly relationship-phobic bartender (Anders Holm). All variously gravitate toward and rebel against the pressure to pair off and marry.
From scene to scene, "How to Be Single" scrolls through tones like a Tinder search, jumping from romance to penis jokes to — most jarring of all — the pain of a widower father (Damon Wayans Jr., as a boyfriend of Alice's). The key here is the winsome Johnson, an assured actress at home in any of the comic or dramatic shifts of the film.
"Friends," "Bridget Jones" and "Sex and the City" are all explicitly referenced, just in case anyone wasn't sure of the genre. "How to Be Single" is best, though, when it pivots from the predictable — when the seemingly destined kiss from an ex-boyfriend turns to heartache, or when a dreamy-eyed Alice gets into a taxi and wistfully says she's going "home," only to be barked at by the cabbie who demands an actual address.
Directed by Christian Ditter, "How to Be Single" deserves credit for fashioning a romantic comedy that diminishes romance and elevates independence, even if its vision of solitude is a shallow version of "me" time.
But it's time to request a moratorium on glossy New York-set rom-coms, where quirky redemption is always found in a bohemian Brooklyn apartment. There must, surely, be single women in Ohio.
What: "How to Be Single." Directed by Christian Ditter. A Warner Bros. release
Star rating (out of four): •
With: Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Leslie Mann, Alison Brie, Nicholas Braun, Damon Wayans Jr., Anders Holm
MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for "sexual content and strong language throughout"
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes
Playing at: Beacon Cinema (Pittsfield), Berkshire Mall Cinema 10 (Lanesborough) and North Adams Movieplex 8