Early in “How to Be Single,” workaholic Manhattan doctor Meg (Leslie Mann) tells her regretfully single sister, Alice (Dakota Johnson), to stop watching “Sex and the City” — a wink-wink inside joke not only because they’re starring in an adaptation of the first novel by that show’s writer and story editor, Liz Tuccillo, but also because in every respect, Christian Ditter’s film plays like a condensed, slapdash version of that HBO hit. Following four women — three of whom know each other, one of whom is wholly unrelated — as they attempt to navigate relationships, careers and one-night stands, this awkward hybrid of romantic comedy and ribald girls-just-wanna-have-fun romp is so scattershot that it never earns any of its eventual heartstring tugging. Though facing little in the way of female-centric theatrical competition, its thin plotting and general dearth of laughs will likely inspire only unflattering comparisons to the escapades of Carrie Bradshaw and company.
Working from a screenplay by Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein and Dana Fox, “How to Be Single” eschews its source material’s primary plot, in which Alice embarks on an “Eat Pray Love”-style international trek to achieve self-definition through singlehood. Instead, it situates its protagonist in bustling, rowdy New York, where she moves in with Meg, gets a job at a law firm and befriends wild-child receptionist Robin (Rebel Wilson), who introduces her to the metropolitan nightlife — which, for Robin, means staying out and getting drunk until dawn, and then sloppily falling into the waiting arms of whichever guy is most ready, willing and able.
Robin is the story’s de facto comedic relief, and thus devoid of the contrived character arcs with which the rest of the characters are saddled. After four years of dating in college, Alice has broken up with nice-guy Josh (Nicholas Braun) in order to experience being alone for the first time in her life — an idea that seems born not from some cogent inner motivation, but from a hazy conception of solitude as an ideal time for doing those things about which she’s always dreamed. A less happy vision of being single is provided by Meg, a middle-aged obstetrician who likes to stridently lecture her younger sibling about the joy of putting professional ambition ahead of matrimonial dreams, but who — as revealed in a bit in which she fails to resist the charms of an adorable baby girl — secretly pines for a tyke of her own.
Alice’s and Robin’s paths soon cross with that of bartender Tom (Anders Holm), a brazen hit-it-and-quit-it bachelor who counsels Alice in the ways of casual sex and commitment avoidance (the key, he believes, is keeping no breakfast food in his fridge). Tom also strikes up a friendship with Lucy (Alison Brie), a hyper-intense woman intent on using algorithms and Excel spreadsheets to immediately find, and settle down with, Mr. Right. Like Alice, Robin, Meg, Tom and Josh, she’s a familiar type, albeit one conceived with scant detail — she appears to have no career other than reading stories to kids at local bookstores — and, because she has no connection to the rest of the film’s female players, little purpose to the primary action at hand.
While Lucy searches for a soulmate on “How to Be Single’s” periphery — a quest that leads her to a largely squandered Jason Mantzoukas — Alice flitters in and out of contact with Josh (who’s now dating a new woman) and briefly hooks up with both Tom and single dad David (Damon Wayans Jr.). Like her evening trysts, these relationships are of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-them variety, dramatized with such one-note rapidity that the film’s attempts, during its birthday-party climax, to make them resonate emotionally comes across as both misguided and desperate.
“How to Be Single” sporadically lurches away from Alice’s “Dear Diary”-grade ruminations to partake in some “Hangover”-ish craziness courtesy of Wilson’s Robin, a walking libido who operates according to a “drink number” theory — i.e., a mathematical equation that stipulates every couple will have sex if they exceed a certain quantity of alcoholic beverages — and who, during one particularly amusing scene, shames Alice for having unkempt nether-regions that resemble Gandalf. Robin’s maniacal thirst for revelry props up the film’s first third, and her eventual retreat into the background accounts for the fizzling energy of the later, more somber portions.
Johnson’s blandly earnest performance contributes to the listless atmosphere, as does Ditter’s pedestrian direction, which is most notable for utilizing cutesy graphics for text conversations (a device that’s fast becoming its own cliche). Most of the blame, however, falls on a script awash in various stereotypical ciphers partaking in formulaic hot-and-cold affairs. Even Meg’s May-December fling with young Ken (Jake Lacy), which is complicated by her decision to have a child via artificial insemination, hinges on a groan-worthy role reversal: She wants to be the breadwinner, he’s content with becoming a stay-at-home dad. Splintered between thinly sketched focal points rather than actually plumbing the real fear, paranoia and elation that come from operating without a romantic partner, “How to Be Single” never transcends its most sitcom-y instincts.