The movie does provide plenty to chew on, and the respective story arcs are executed well enough to make the overall journey worthwhile.
Ensemble romantic comedies are often sweeping and superficial looks at the so-called entirety of the dating scene, rather than an investment in a single, deeper story about love. Films like He’s Just Not That Into You or any of the holiday-themed ensemble rom-coms of the last few years – Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve - are successes in large part because they attract a wide net of viewers with their star-studded casts. However, Think Like a Man has an uphill battle in that regard, since it features a cast of primarily African-American stars.
The real question (as always) is: will this film appeal to a wider moviegoing audience? And more to the point: does it have any appeal at all?
The story revolves around a group of male friends played by Michael Ealy (Underworld Awakening), Terrence Jenkins (The Game), Romany Malco (40 Year-Old Virgin), Kevin Hart (Death at a Funeral) and resident white friends Jerry Ferrara (Entourage) and Gary Owen (House of Payne). The guys each represent a certain “type” – “dreamer,” “slacker,” “player,” “momma’s boy,” misogynist – but they are all thrown a collective curveball when comedian Steve Harvey – or as the movie refers to him, ‘that host of Family Feud‘ - writes a book that exposes the inner workings of mens’ minds to all those women looking for a leg-up in the war of love.
When the girl “types” – easy girl Meagan Good (The Unborn), single mom Regina Hall (Scary Movie), lonely career gal Taraji P. Henson (Hustle ‘N Flow), and ‘one of the guys’ girlfriend Gabrielle Union (Bad Boys 2) – eventually encounter their respective mates, they do so with the mindset of not making the same old mistakes, and doing things the Steve Harvey way. However, when the boys learn that the girls are using a book as their romantic guide, they mount a psychological counter-attack to regain their lost ground on the battlefield.
Think Like a Man‘s greatest strength is the quality of its construction: it is much smarter in terms of both structure and story than so many other ensemble rom-coms have managed to be. (It’s also smarter than a lot viewers might expect from watching the trailers.) Sure, the whole thing is an unashamed (and simultaneously shameful) endorsement of Steve Harvey’s bestselling self-help book, but screenwriters David A. Newman and Keith Merryman – the duo who wrote the topical rom-com Friends with Benefits - and director Tim Story (Fantastic Four, Barber Shop) manage to create a timely, lighthearted, and (most importantly) honest look at what gender politics have become in the new millennium – and all the confusion and struggles that come with. In short: this is probably one the better and more entertaining adaptations of a self-help book you’re likely to see.
The film itself is structured as a chronicle of war, starting with an animated segment about manhood that is lifted right out of the animated series The Boondocks. From there, we are introduced to our various male and female “types” before we move on to the “vs.” rounds, wherein the types are arranged into the pairings that provide the interlocking story arcs of the film (for example, “The Momma’s Boy vs. The Single Mother”). The movie then takes us through the familiar rom-com formula of love, break up, and reconciliation – albeit with total self-awareness of its own cliched path (as voiced by the not-so-subtle narration of Kevin Hart’s character).
While the contrived structure of the story and blatant reliance on character “types” seem, on paper, like the recipe for a flat and two-dimensional movie, the cast of Think Like a Man succeed (for the most part) in elevating their archetypes and making them into relatable characters for viewers of both genders to engage with. Some of the actors – Ealy, Henson, Hall and Malco – are certainly better (in some cases much better) than others – Jenkins, Good, Ferrara – but the weaker actors are paired with stronger actors so that scenes of the individual relationships are never complete disasters, even if the weaker links falter. Similarly, some of the storylines are better than others (Henson and Ealy’s is the best by far), but all of them are sufficiently developed and offer ample (if not predictable) payoff. The strongest scenes are when the couples separate into their male and female herds for some humorous rumination and trash-talking – with the exception of scenes featuring Meagan Good and her best friend played by La La Anthony (Carmelo’s wife), which are like discourses on terrible acting.
To the movie’s credit, the various “types” and relationship arrangements are all somewhat relevant – that is to say, it’s easy recognize our own relationships and/or personalities in at least one of the scenarios or characters. Merryman and Newman are also unafraid to break from the usual timid rom-com policy of political correctness; Think Like a Man is probably the best use of “token” characters I have seen.
Gary Owen steals many moments as Bennett, the boring, happily married white guy who is always ready and willing to offer some whitebread levelheaded wisdom to his chest-thumping black friends. Owen turns the usual caricature (the token group member) completely on its head by being unapologetically what he is: boring, white, happily married and better off for it. The presence of Owen and Ferrara creates an even better dynamic in the group: scenes where the guys argue about behaviors and attitudes that are endemic to black and/or white culture are earnest, honest and refreshing to see.
In terms of tone, the movie is not concerned with offering over-the-top slapstick or raunchy humor (those aspects are well quarantined within Kevin Hart’s character) -rather, Think Like a Man is concerned with telling a more genuine and pointed story about love and relationships, sprinkled with a few sight gags (Kevin Hart is short – get it?), reoccurring jokes (see: Chris Brown’s cameo as a Lothario dirtbag), a few winking celebrity cameos, and plenty of observational humor. Those yearning for the “comedy” end of ‘romantic comedy’ might feel a bit shortchanged – then again, the movie does provide plenty to chew on, and the respective story arcs are executed well enough to make the overall journey worthwhile.
Think Like a Man is now playing in theaters. It is Rated PG-13 for sexual content, some crude humor, and brief drug use.