Sunday, April 22, 2012

Think For Yourself: THINK LIKE A MAN

It’s strange to suddenly realize we live in a world where based-on-a-self-help-book is a real subgenre of the romantic comedy. Sure, we had He’s Just Not That Into You back in 2009, but that felt like more of a fluke offshoot of the Love Actually school of ensemble rom-coms. (And, of course, there was Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask all the way back in 1972, but that’s really more of a collection of shorts and hardly a romantic comedy, so we may as well leave it out of this particular conversation). But with What to Expect When You’re Expecting coming out next month and Think Like a Man (based on Steve Harvey’s bestselling Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man) being the film in question here today, it’s become almost natural that a self help book be converted into a framework for an ensemble to fall in and out of love.

Harvey’s book is a relationship guide for women that claims to unlock the mysteries of the modern man’s mind. These so-called mysteries can then be used to find and win the heart of the types of men these women would prefer to be dating. In practice, the book’s worldview is one of rigid gender roles and insulting stereotypes for both men and women. And maybe it’s just me, but somehow the introduction of psychological warfare by way of hack standup routines seems to be at or near the opposite of romance and the foundation of a happy, healthy, adult relationship. The problem of Think Like a Man isn’t that it’s based off of a lame book, or even that it uses the book’s premises as cheap frames for its plotlines (introductory titles like “The Player” and “Mama’s Boy vs. Single Mom” spell out each couple’s “types” and central conflicts for us). The problem of this film is that it’s so often in the business of selling us the book.

Who should appear not once, not twice, but several times on TVs in the background or, even worse, talking right to the camera or in smug voice over? Steve Harvey as himself. Copies of the book are prominently displayed, bought, read, highlighted, and discussed in many a scene. An important plot twist develops around who knows who has been reading the book. At one point, during an otherwise reasonably entertaining conversation between two characters, one holds up a copy of the book, positioning the cover towards the camera almost as if she was plugging it on a talk show or revealing it as the next item on The Price is Right. Every time the book is hauled, literally or thematically, into the movie, it wrenches away interest from the characters by foregrounding the artificiality of it all.

Like any ensemble romantic comedy you’ve ever seen, this script by Keith Merryman and David A. Newman introduces a set of male characters and a set of female characters and proceeds to see them comically thrown together in separate but intertwining plots that click right along from the Meet Cutes to the false crisises, to the romantic revaluations and the eventual forgiving embraces. Director Tim Story jumps between plots and scenes with a bit of clumsiness that inhibits momentum, but sometimes it’s all pleasant enough, even, at times, vaguely amusing.  What makes this particular movie so pleasant is the cast. They’re so much better than the script requires that, when the formula fades away to some extent, it’s entirely their talent that causes it to do so.

As the men, we have dreamer Michael Ealy, man-child Jerry Ferrara, divorced Kevin Hart, mama’s boy Terrence Jenkins, and player Romany Malco. Hart and Malco are especially good here as the more explicitly comedic characters. They’ve been putting in good work, usually on the margins, in films and TV shows for years, so it’s nice to see them grab more of the spotlight. Where the cast really lights up is with the women. It’ll be tough for any other film this year to match it in the number underappreciated and underutilized actresses in the cast. Playing career women are Meagan Good, Taraji P. Henson, and Gabrielle Union, with Regina Hall as the single mom. They are so very good here that they serve to upend the film’s assumptions about the female mind. They’re lovely; they can be tough and vulnerable and are perfectly capable of being funny without becoming clowns. In the end, the film’s on their side.

Ideally, having a looser structure based around life lessons (of a sort) would allow the self-help rom-com to slip out of the boy-meets-girl, loses-girl, gets-girl grind, but here it just serves to multiply the predictability. Think Like a Man’s biggest problem is its hard sell approach to its hack ideas and stale gender role commentary. The movie lines up a pretty good cast and, when it can gain some real momentum away from Harvey’s book, it can be a fairly decent, if still underwhelming, picture. But that doesn’t happen often enough and by the end I was more disappointed than I thought I’d be. Flashes of promise make ultimate mediocrity hurt just a little bit more than usual.

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