At this point the Modern Urban Romantic Comedy is probably past the point of reinvention.
After decades of aerial shots of the New York City skyline (sometimes it’s the San Francisco or Chicago or even Some Other City Gorgeous City Skyline); musical interludes featuring pop songs reflecting the romantic status of the lead characters; just about every Meet Cute imaginable; breakup scenes where someone says, “I can’t do this anymore,” and countless finales where someone finally comes to his/her senses and shows up just in time to deliver the most perfect “I can’t live without you” speech, we’ve been there, done that.
We almost always know where the stories are going. It’s all about the journey. It all depends on the writing, the acting, the skill of the director — and that magical thing that happens when the amount of laughs and the amount of heart-tugging moments are expertly balanced, and we find ourselves rooting for the characters to find the happiness they deserve.
“How to Be Single” delivers on all counts. It’s one of the most endearing romantic comedies in recent memory, with some laugh-out-loud dialogue, gorgeous photography and uniformly charming performances from the entire cast.
Sure, it’s corny and manipulative, and at times the plausibility is stretched beyond even the movie-fantasy romance. I got that.
But I was smitten anyway.
The posters and the trailers for “How to Be Single” might give the impression this is a raunchy female-fronted comedy in the tradition of “Bridesmaids” and “Trainwreck,” and indeed there’s no shortage of genitalia humor, salty language and sexuality. But at heart this is actually a sweet, sentimental film focusing on the adventures of four single women in New York City, and yes, there’s a “Sex and the City” reference here, as well as nods to “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “Friends” and other recent pop-culture touchstones about single women trying to make a go of it in today’s crazy world.
In the most winning performance of her young career, Dakota Johnson has the most screen time as Alice, a recent college grad “on a break” from her longtime boyfriend Josh (Nicholas Braun). On Alice’s first day as a paralegal, she becomes insta-friends with Rebel Wilson’s Robin, a brassy, bawdy, sexually voracious free spirit.
In other words, Rebel Wilson has the Rebel Wilson role — but just when I thought I’d seen enough of Wilson playing variations on the same character, she knocks it out of the park here with a genuinely hilarious performance.
The reliable Leslie Mann is Meg, Alice’s older sister, a successful, 40ish obstetrician who has delivered some 3,000 babies — even as she tells everyone and anyone she’s so glad SHE never had a child, because babies are little “love terrorists” who will ruin your figure, rob you of your own identity, sidetrack your career and steal your dreams.
Of course, we don’t believe Meg believes that for a second. In one of the finest pieces of acting in Mann’s career, there’s a beautiful and funny scene in which Meg is left alone with a newborn and delivers a running monologue about how the kid isn’t really that cute or adorable. Except of course she is.
The most uneven and least connected of the four stories centers on Alison Brie’s Lucy, who’s tightly wound, marriage-obsessed and in need of serious therapy. Lucy reads bridal magazines because she intends to marry “18 months after I met the right guy,” creates algorithms designed to find the perfect man and volunteers for storytime reading duty just so she can be near children. She’s scary, is what she is.
With a running time of 1 hour, 50 minutes, “How to Be Single” has a few dry moments, but that relatively long RT also provides time for the supporting male characters to rise about cardboard stereotypes.
Anders Holm (who has the biggest supporting role among the men and does a solid job as a womanizing bar owner), Jake Lacy, Colin Jost and Jason Mantzoukas all hit some nice notes as romantic interests.
Damon Wayans Jr. is particularly outstanding as David, a dashing, successful developer and widower with an unbearably wonderful little girl (Zani Jones Mbayise). We’ve heard the great Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” put to great use in so many films from “The Deer Hunter” to “Conspiracy Theory” to of course “Jersey Boys,” but perhaps never more movingly than in the story thread involving David and his daughter. Lovely stuff.
Lovely stuff all around.
Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Christian Ditter and written by Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein and Dana Fox, based on the book by Liz Tuccillo. Running time: 110 minutes. Rated R (for sexual content and strong language throughout). Opens Friday at local theaters.