How to Be Single treads a well-beaten path

You know those empowering movies based on empowering books sold to women at the front of bookstores, so caught up in their source material that they open and close with voice-over lifted straight from the page?

How to Be Single (based on the book of the same name by Sex and the City show writer and He’s Just Not That into You book writer Liz Tuccillo) retreads so much familiar material, the romantic comedy feels like week-old road kill — more road than meat.

Yes, the Sex and the City-referencing movie (Are they allowed to do that if they’re written by the same person?) follows the predictably lonely life of Alice (Dakota Johnson) as she eats, prays and loves her way through New York City.

The narrative hops around with a cute excuse (this isn’t a story about being in a relationship, no sir), but still jars without proper pacing from director Christian Ditter. I’m not sure there’s a story besides “girl develops a personality,” but even that loose theme seems tenuous at best. Randomly switching between the love stories of Alice, her sister, a random bartender and Alice’s various ex-boyfriends doesn’t exactly develop a strong plot. It feels like a season of a generic soap was shoved together and edited for time. Yet, while the dialogue sounds like someone crowdsourced a rom-com from a game of Telephone, some of the cast still manages to pull it off.

Johnson isn’t given much, but her sister Meg (Leslie Mann) and Meg’s boyfriend (Jake Lacy) make lemonade out of lemon-scented Pine-Sol. Mann’s in her comfort zone playing a sexually active yet unconfident older woman, and Lacy seems game for anything with his softer, sweeter Ryan Reynolds cheekiness. Unfortunately, Rebel Wilson is as exciting as Larry the Cable Guy in a tight dress celebrating his sexuality. Vulgarity for the sake of vulgarity always wears thin, ironically more so when it’s delivered by someone increasingly typecast as a fat joke.

The men (Damon Wayans Jr., Anders Holm, Nicholas Braun and Colin Jost) belong to the sort of interchangeable, almost-nice guy group that you lump your friends’ exes into when they haven’t done anything especially heinous. Things didn’t work out. You’re not sure why, but you don’t especially care.

Yet some charming moments slip through. The physical comedy is shot perfectly, as timely cuts reveal the peppy waiter just off-screen or a lifted drink turns out to be a glass-sized candle. The movie’s primary value lies in it being the American debut of German cinematographer Christian Rein, who plays with light and space so delicately that one can’t help but be drawn from the colorless dialogue to explore the excitingly balanced hues surrounding it. Frankly, he’s too good for this movie.

Teaming with Ditter, Rein creates the best sequence of the film, in which Dakota’s character realizes that she and one of the many guys are getting dangerously close to their “drink number” (the number of collective drinks a male/female friendship can endure in one sitting without devolving into sex).

Dakota stumbles around the apartment gathering empty beer bottles, their sequential numbers lighting up on their labels as they’re collected — one, two, three. Her growing desperation and eventual acquiescence are wonderful silent comedy, which makes you wonder what this cast and crew could’ve done if they were freed from the bonds of their pop-lit scripture.

Print headline: Single lighting, A new rom-com struggles in the bonds of its genre while still showing the skills of its creators.

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