dakota johnson is our mae west. it has become a symbol of screen debauchery whose very presence in a film signals a certain kind of “action”. She was thrown into the world in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey, playing a flirtatious damsel experiencing a new kind of love, a love that required rhinestone-studded palettes. Next, she stole the show from Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes as a teenage femme fatale in a larger twist by Luca Guadagnino, her character employing outrageously plunging necklines to produce dazzling sartorial results.
now comfortably wears christian ditter’s how to be single, a fun rodeo of sexual liberation and self-discovery set in manhattan that bears more than a passing resemblance to sex and the city (the good tv shows, not the bad movies). in this movie, you want it to be successful. you want her to find happiness, which in this extremely rare case might not involve living with a lantern-jawed hottie she dragged home from happy hour. she is naturally googly-eyed, which means her happy expressions fade with melancholy, and her sad expressions fade with hope. the cloying extremes of sentimentality are never seen. there’s nothing in her body language to tell you what kind of girl she is, so she effortlessly switches between flippant and demure, sometimes in a single scene.
She plays Alice, an inquisitive young woman who decides to freeze her long relationship with beloved Josh (Nicholas Braun) to experience life in the big city and possibly the sensation of no-strings-attached sex with plenty of anonymous partners. it just takes a new notch in the bedpost before she sees the error of her ways. But crawling back to dear Josh is useless, because he has already chosen to sow his own wild oats.
Fortunately, Alice is a deskmate of Rebel Wilson’s Robin, a champion party girl who makes sure Alice is drunk, dancing, talking to a man, or all three at the same time. Wilson is a one-woman firestorm in this movie. she gets most of the zingers, and her hit rate is great. she is especially good at talking about the cumulative disadvantages of pubic hair that is too long.
In between cocktail bouts, Alice stays with her sister, Meg (Leslie Mann), a high-strung midwife who decides she wants a baby without the gibberish of finding a partner for life. there’s a beautiful scene where meg announces to alice that she wants to get pregnant with frozen sperm from the internet, and the ensuing conversation between the two is spot on. you think they are sisters, even though they look and sound completely different. ahh, the magic of cinema…
Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein and Dana Fox’s screenplay is satisfyingly free of bias, framing women’s escapades as natural and wholesome, and all their decisions with relative positives and negatives. in addition, the male characters, although very secondary, are elaborated with as much sensitivity as the heroines. resorting to crude stereotyping and pseudo-moralizing is a no-no, and while this may seem like a small victory in the scheme of things, it is vital.
Perhaps the film could be accused of being scattered or episodic, but its fragmentary structure is key to its virtues. Instead of bludgeoning a single theme to death with sketch-like variations on a theme, the film manages to tackle a wide range of issues and themes, including the difficulty of self-sufficiency, realizing when you want children, embracing the emotional baggage from others, sex as a cure for loneliness, and the fact that even our closest friends can remain completely unknown to us. the movie doesn’t reinvent any wheels, and doesn’t try. but it hits a lot of small, big notes, which helps how being single rise above the rabble.
However, what gives it a real edge is that it’s one of those rare movies that supports single status. he says, maybe there’s satisfaction in places that aren’t inside a man’s cargo pants. It would be impolite to reveal the ending of the film, but it’s a quietly radical gesture that celebrates independence without implying that we should all become cave-dwelling hermits living off roots and rainwater. it’s not a happy ending. It’s not a sad ending. But it’s a great ending, one that revolves around the mystery of looking deep into Dakota Johnson’s eyes and trying to read his thoughts and predict his future.
david jenkins is the editor of little white lies