Review: 'How To Be Single' a lot more intelligent than expected

Rick Bentley
The Fresno Bee (TNS)

"How To Be Single" is an example of the dangerous pitfalls of judging a movie based only on the cast list, movie poster and early trailers. Going strictly by those elements, "How To Be Single" looks a chick flick that relies heavily on bawdy material to generate laughs.
This kind of assumption comes from the casting of Rebel Wilson, who tends to play comedy so over the top that the jokes often die from lack of oxygen. The posters make it look like this is little more than a big-screen version of Wilson's failed TV series, "Super Fun Night."
Then there's Dakota Johnson who showed all the appeal of a cactus enema in the super dull night movie "Fifty Shades of Gray." Toss in the hit and miss work of Leslie Mann and the mousy nature of Alison Brie and the signs pointed to a disaster.
"How To Be Single" actually is a smart, fun and sweet movie.
Despite an all-female starring cast, it delivers its comments about relationships in such a full and inclusive manner that males will be pulled into the intertwined stories.
It starts with Alice (Johnson), a law firm employee who is coming out of a failed relationship. Her best friend, Robin (Wilson), decides to help her navigate the choppy waters of dating. The efforts don't always work as Robin speeds through life.
Alice is also dealing with her single sister, Meg (Mann), whose relationship with a younger man leads to a pregnancy.
The last piece of the puzzle is Lucy (Brie), a woman using logic, statistics and strategy to find the right mate. This intellectual approach keeps her from seeing the people around her who may really care for her.
Credit director Christian Ditter and writers Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein and Dana Fox with keeping this film at such a high level. There are plenty of humorous moments, but instead of just relying on the lowest common factors, each joke is a smart commentary on life and love.
This works because Ditter gets the best performance out of Johnson of her young career. She's as comfortable with the humor as she is with the deeper emotions. It's easy to see this complicated dating world through her eyes because she comes across so real and genuine.
The biggest shock is Wilson. Generally, her performance is so manic that she quickly becomes a distraction rather than a comic asset. Ditter mixes her in at just the right moment to slam dunk a joke and then move on. There's no feeling that she's trying to milk the life out of a funny twist.
Mann's job is to anchor the story as the more mature member of the group. It's refreshing that her storyline about an older woman and a younger man isn't played as some type of sleazy sex play. These are two complicated people who never have to resort to over-used sex jokes.
Movies that tend to focus on one sex often treat those from the other sex as little more than props. "How To Be Single" is an equal opportunity film where the male characters are presented with depth. The best example is the single father played by Damon Wayans Jr. His character is dealing with a lot of emotional baggage when it comes to his daughter and that adds another level to the story.
The weakest link is Brie. Her character always seems to be on the fringes. She's part of the group, but her work is so far removed that her story never fully blends with the others. It's a weakness, but it's not enough to take away from what is a very solid story of love and loss played against a New York City backdrop that is so beautifully shot it looks like a fantasy land.
"How To Be Single" is a wonderful surprise. It takes a high road in both comedy and story that makes it work on multiple levels. More comedies that focus on one gender should pay attention to this movie. The cast and crew deliver from start to finish.

3 out of 4 stars
Rated R for sexual content, strong language
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Alison Brie, Leslie Mann, Damon Wayans Jr.
Director: Christian Ditter
110 minutes

Rebel Wilson in "How to Be Single." (JoJo Whilden/Warner Bros. Entertainment/TNS)
Anders Holm and Alison Brie in "How to Be Single." (JoJo Whilden/Warner Bros. Entertainment/TNS)
Dakota Johnson in "How to Be Single." (JoJo Whilden/Warner Bros. Entertainment/TNS)