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Just in time for Valentine's Day, 'How to Be Single' treads a familiar path

Just in time for Valentine's Day, 'How to Be Single' treads a familiar path
Dakota Johnson, left, and Rebel Wilson in "How to Be Single." (Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros.)

This Valentine's Day weekend, the gender lines have been drawn in bright red. If you want the latest R-rated male fantasy of empowerment, lousy with testosterone, "Deadpool" is your diversion. For a 55-gallon drum of estrogen, help yourself to "How to Be Single." Both films are a little better than you'd expect, thanks to the key performers. I should add, however, that February, in movie parlance, is a synonym for "settling."

"How to Be Single" stars Dakota Johnson, queen of the Valentine's Day box office last year when she was checking out the Red Room of Pain in "Fifty Shades of Grey." Johnson's easygoing, offhanded charisma has a way of loosening up mediocre material and keeping it as honest as possible under the circumstances. She brings to the camera some of the blithe timing of Greta Gerwig as well as the pleasing gravity of Charlotte Gainsbourg, and in "How to Be Single" she shares scenes with Leslie Mann (who plays her older sister) that really get the job done; they're funny and charming and a little bit off-plot, so everybody can relax into them.

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At this point in the review of "How to Be Single" I should point out that I am not any of the following: a woman; a New Yorker; a Brooklynite; a fan of Liz Tuccillo's 2008 book, to which the film adaptation, directed brightly but flatly by Christian Ditter, bears a passing resemblance; or a fan of Rebel Wilson, whom I find exhausting. Wilson plays Robin, the boozy confidant to Johnson's character, Alice, a newly arrived Manhattan paralegal who hits New York after an ambiguous breakup with her college boyfriend.

Woo-hoo! "Let me teach you how to be single," Robin says, and they're off, a-drinking and a-dating and a-learning how to navigate their 20s without giving in to the usual cultural load of shame and humiliation and doubt regarding their singlehood.

The movie doesn't make that easy. Tuccillo, author of the book, worked as a story editor on "Sex and the City" and even with most of the book tossed out, this is "Sex and the City" too. Or three. In the book Alice traveled the world in search of dating tips and enlightenment. Here she moves to Brooklyn, which like everything else in "How to Be Single," resembles a sunny fairyland of rooftop dance parties and romantic possibility.

Anders Holm, whose career sort of mystifies me, plays the genial horn dog owner of Tom's Bar and Alice's friend/lover. Alison Brie does what she can to humanize her marriage-minded Type A cliche, a woman who lives above Tom's place and has her own slow-burning flirtation with the owner.

Roughly half the scenes are terrible, nervously edited and predictable. The other half transcend the innate shrugginess of the script. At the end there's a dose of voice-over narration assigned to Johnson that is so, so very Carrie Bradshaw, you half-expect Sarah Jessica Parker to show up with a lawsuit. But I enjoyed more of "How to Be Single" than I would've thought possible. In other words: enough not to resent it.

Phillips is a Tribune Newspapers critic.

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'How to Be Single'

MPAA rating: R, for sexual content and strong language throughout

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Playing: In general release

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