Dakota Johnson makes for an oddly recessive heroine in “How to Be Single,” an earnest but awkwardly misshapen attempt to reconcile the archaic conventions of romantic comedy with the 21st-century values of independence and sexual self-determination. Cut from the same cloth as “Sex and the City” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” — both explicitly quoted — with a dash of “Girls” thrown in for whiny, self-defeating good measure, what should be a fizzy comedy of contradictory manners instead comes across as dutiful and unforgivably dull. Rarely has a portrait of someone getting her life together been so lifeless.
Johnson plays Alice, who upon graduating from college decides to take a break from her long-term boyfriend, move to New York and explore life unattached. Sleeping on the couch of her obstetrician sister Meg (Leslie Mann), Alice gets a job at a law firm and immediately makes a new friend in Robin (Rebel Wilson), a promiscuous party animal who tutors the wide-eyed Alice in the seductions, one-night stands and hangovers that lie beyond the looking glass of Tinder-era Manhattan.
Johnson doesn’t possess the guileless comic timing of her mother, Melanie Griffith, although she brings sleepy-eyed believability to Alice, who moves through the movie’s rote set pieces with the dazed docility of a heifer being led to slaughter. But if Johnson lacks fizz, there’s something quietly heroic in her refusal to give in to rom-com expectations. She’s adamantly unfazed by her surroundings, no matter how hysterically pitched. Alice meets men in a series of stagey meet-cutes, but the subject of “How to Be Single” is really women, who range from neurotically self-deceiving (the adamantly non-baby-crazy Meg) to desperately needy (a compulsive Internet dater named Lucy, played with irksome overstatement by Alison Brie).
Directed by Christian Ditter with a close-up-heavy visual design ready-made for airplane viewing, “How to Be Single” claims the mantle of feminism — at least in its hastily cobbled-together final act — but it’s a burlesque on female selfhood and solidarity. On close inspection, the film reserves most of its sympathy for its male characters, whose foibles are mild, if they’re present at all. Damon Wayans Jr., Anders Holm, Nicholas Braun and Jason Mantzoukas are on hand for those honors, with Jake Lacy playing what has become his stock character since his breakout role in 2014’s “Obvious Child”: the Stoic, Patient Dream Guy.
In fact, everyone plays a stock character in “How to Be Single”: Mann is edgy, high-strung and too self-aware for her own good; Wilson is the sexually aggressive, slightly sloppy good-time girl (she’s responsible for the movie’s most raunchy humor, except for a graphic sight gag involving Holm during its opening moments). As for Johnson’s vague, slightly spaced-out character, she’s not nearly as dynamic or legible as the ambivalent masochist of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” She comes into focus slowly, and only with the help of some “Look, just hear me out” speeches rather than compelling, clearly motivated action. Ultimately, “How to Be Single” feels reverse-engineered to justify its ending, which while admittedly gratifying, can’t accurately be described as happy. For that, it would have to be worth the contrivances, cliches and tedium that have gone before.
R. At area theaters. Contains obscenity and sexuality. 104 minutes.