Film

‘How to Be Single’ in a Fantasy New York Where Money Doesn’t Matter

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On the surface, there isn’t much to object to in How to Be Single. Look, it says! No matter how fabulous their lives may seem, everyone wants to be happier and more fulfilled. Everyone is looking for something more, just like you! And really, Christian Ditter’s film (based on the book by Liz Tuccillo) isn’t bad as these things go; it zips along as Dakota Johnson’s Alice, in the first flush of post-college singlehood, makes a nutty new friend, bangs some dopes, has a brief relationship and ultimately decides she needs to know herself better before giving her heart to anyone else. The friend: Rebel Wilson’s Robin, who’s Pitch Perfect‘s Fat Amy 10 drunker, hornier, rowdier years later — which is to say, Wilson spends most of the movie improvising her lines, right? Because it’s not like Robin does anything that “Rebel Wilson” wouldn’t do in any other role. The problem is that the movie presents Alice’s experience as universal, as if anyone outside of a movie set in New York has ever lived like these white, straight young women in their 20s.

Near South 2nd and Berry streets in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where Alice finds a charming studio (which, shockingly for Williamsburg, hasn’t been gut-renovated to get that metal-and-glass Brooklyn Look), rents on equivalent apartments range from $1,800 (in a co-op) to $3,700. Assuming Alice’s paralegal salary is on the high side, and her rent is on the low side, she’s spending a good 40% of her gross income on housing. Maybe a movie about figuring out what you want in a relationship and pursuing it doesn’t need to focus on things like careers or economics or how its characters manage not to take the subway even once. But either it takes the self-help promise of its title seriously or it doesn’t.

What is How to Be Single supposed to teach an actual person? No one can wear those clothes and those heels and live in that neighborhood on $58,000 a year — unless the actual advice here is that recent college grads, most of them in 30 years’ worth of student-loan debt, should max out their credit cards to buy the perfect stilettos for walking through midtown.

Broad City often dips into the surreal as it follows two young women living it up in New York City, but entire episodes have also centered around lugging a new air conditioner home by yourself on a scorching summer day or getting around on the weekend when half the trains are either rerouted or not running. Abbi and Ilana don’t purport to speak for every unmarried woman under age 40; How to be Single posits Alice as an everywoman even as the characters around her — the marriage-crazy power dater, the drunken slut, the forever-alone career woman — are all just slightly better than stereotypes.

The film tries to have it both ways. It criticizes the last decade’s Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw fantasies, which themselves were supposed to be more “realistic” portrayals of single heterosexual womanhood, but it still exists in a candy-coated New York where everyone has infinite money, exactly six nonwhite people ever speak and Christmas is always gently covered with pristine, powdery snow. No surprise that co-screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein also collaborated on Valentine’s Day, Garry Marshall’s 2010 movie in which a cavalcade of stars do jazz hands about love (not to be confused with 2011’s New Year’s Eve, in which a cavalcade of stars do jazz hands about love, but in December). No matter how much fibrous real talk it’s wrapped in, How to Be Single has a heart made of sugary-sweet white chocolate.