How to Be Single (2016)

I feel like I’ve been taking on quite a few unchallenging romcoms lately (as I did action films last year), and it’s a genre that more than many really does stand or fall on the likeability of its lead actors, and the breeziness of its writing. Which is just as well for How to Be Single because it has plenty of both. I mean, sure, it has some cloying sentimentality — most notably when Leslie Mann’s embittered character Meg gets the sudden desire to have a baby after apparently working for years as a maternity doctor — and it does suggest that being single is just a step on the path towards happy, heteronormative coupledom. Still, throughout its running time it does admirably stay focused on the single life of its four female leads, and when characters do get into relationships the film swiftly fast-forwards from first kiss to break-up via an intertitle (e.g. “3 months later”). It also along the way challenges the idea that having children without a father should be strange (though there’s a small role in this respect for Jake Lacy, which seems to present an alternative path from his character in Obvious Child). But whatever else it may do, it’s mostly about how lovely and watchable and empathetic Dakota Johnson is as a star — which is great because she was by far the best thing about Fifty Shades of Grey — and it has a good supporting turn from Rebel Wilson, who thankfully is not required to do an American accent, even if her character can sometimes be just a little too far along the ‘wacky/fun/drunk comedy sidekick’ continuum. Of the other stars, Alison Brie has a fairly minor role, and only Anders Holm as bar owner Tom really makes much of an impression amongst the roster of boyfriends, partners and love interests. Still, that’s fine by me, because this is a film primarily about the women’s experience of New York. It’s largely a middle-class vision (the script cheerfully references Friends and Sex and the City, of course), and as I said above, it doesn’t really challenge too many orthodoxies, but it’s likeable.

How to Be Single film posterCREDITS
Director Christian Ditter; Writers Dana Fox, Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (based on the novel by Liz Tuccillo); Cinematographer Christian Rein; Starring Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Leslie Mann, Alison Brie, Anders Holm; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Monday 1 March 2016.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Having created a straitjacket for myself with my New Year’s resolution, there was no other option but to go see this adaptation of a well-known (if not necessarily well-regarded) novel/extended fanfic by English writer E.L. James — which, I’ll say right now, I haven’t read, though that surely shouldn’t get in the way of appreciating the film/s (it didn’t for Harry Potter, after all). There’s certainly no shortage of women in control behind the scenes of the film, but the question was always going to be how much would be onscreen. As it happens, Dakota Johnson does really very well in the lead role of Anastasia Steele, intrepid college reporter interviewing youthful tycoon Christian Grey (a comparatively bland Jamie Dornan). I think most people know the set-up so I shan’t go any further here with a plot rehash here, because to do so at this point would frankly be boring, but it’s safe to say the film is shot with the kind of steely professionalism that could suggest any major world city as the setting (technically it’s Seattle, in a nod to its Twilight-fanfic origins perhaps, but seems to be shot in Vancouver, yet either way there’s very little sense of place). It fixates on the shiny, modern, expensively-clad business world of its male hero, the trappings of which are supposed to sway Ana towards love, but for which she generally shows very little enthusiasm. In some way, it’s a masterclass of minimalist acting by Johnson: one can never quite tell how much she really lusts for Christian, and how much is a sort of naive complacency or a lack of anything better to do with her time. It sets up her submissive role in the ensuing relationship, but the film makes efforts to suggest that through it all she knows what she’s doing and subtly exerts control, and there’s some really well-judged humour in possibly the film’s best scene — the boardroom contract-signing where she sets her limits within the relationship (how many onscreen relationships have clearly defined and agreed boundaries, after all?). That said, the ensuing erotic scenes are all rather restrained (I’m surprised at the 18 classification, frankly), and hark back to some hoary cinematic clichés (there’s an icecube scene that I think dates back to 9½ Weeks, and that’s not the only 80s retro throwback). In short, it’s a more successful film than I had feared, and Johnson will (I hope!) have a long career. Perhaps it may even be due a critical reassessment when we’ve passed this first phase of its infamy, but for now, let’s just say it’s as inoffensive as it has any right to be, given its romantic lead is a man who enjoys hurting women.

Fifty Shades of Grey film posterCREDITS
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson; Writer Kelly Marcel (based on the novel by E.L. James); Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Saturday 28 February 2015.