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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ordinarily, the lede paragraph is where I'd put a hackles-raised jeremiad of disputable racial sensitivity, complaining about how we have all of these really terrific African-American actors, and because of the rather nasty segregation that goes on in movie casting offices, the only movies where they have big leading roles are dodgy Tyler Perryish exercises in trashy clichés. I am not obliged to do that, because surprisingly enough, Think Like a Man, which looks for all the world like one more of those "urban viewers" jobs (right down to the release date) that get burned off right before the "real" movies for "mainstream" (i.e. white) audiences start to flood the multiplexes, is actually kind of good. Kind of great, almost, given its generic limitations - "great" and "21st Century romantic comedy" are unlikely to ever belong in the same sentence, irrespective of the skin tone of the people involved. And so instead of saying e.g. "I like Gabrielle Union so fucking much, why can't she ever manage to get a decent part?", I get to say "I like Gabrielle Union so fucking much, and it's awesome to see her get such a fun role in such a fun movie".

Union is merely one of many faces in a generous ensemble cast made up of all sorts of good, great, or downright excellent actors, including Taraji P. Henson, Romany Malco, Jenifer Lewis, Michael Ealy, Regina Hall, Meagan Good, Kevin Hart, and Terrence J. There are even a couple of token white guys, Jerry Ferrara and Gary Owen. I have not provided their names, partially because it was really hard to keep track of them all, and partially because names are sort of unimportant: they are stock types, and Think Like a Man is the kind of movie that does not merely traffic in stock types but loudly and enthusiastically announces that it is trafficking in stock types, perhaps as a means of inoculating itself against further criticism Scream-style, perhaps to make sure that we don't get our hopes up too terribly high. More to the point, this leaves the film with a certain self-aware hokiness that make the most contrived bends the plot takes in the back half - and they are some excruciatingly contrived bends - a bit more palatable, since the movie doesn't appear to take them any more seriously than we do, while leaving the sassy, fluffy appeal of the characters firmly intact.

The point being, we're introduced to the characters via both narration and onscreen text; the narration coming from short, wildly sexist Cedric (Hart), who acerbically runs through a pleasant little History of Gender Roles in the form of a Korean animated sequence detailing cavemen fighting mammoths because that's how men prove their manliness; then he gets on to describing himself and his five basketball buddies as belonging to the American male archetypes - the Player, the Mama's Boy, the Happily Married Man, and that kind of thing. Within the next 15 minutes, the film has already repeated this information using onscreen tags to inform us not just which of the stock men we're watching as they are positioned into a stock plot, but also which stock female they're being paired with - hence a starry-eyed dreamer with a bile-spewing career woman (Ealy and Henson), a manchild and his live in girlfriend who wants to make their house look something less like a dorm room (Ferrara and Union), and to a certain degree it almost feels like writers Keith Merryman & David A. Newman, and director Tim Story are poking fun at the material as much as they're presenting it, what with the super-serious Courier New titles and a metronomic switching between subplots that stresses the artifice of it all rather than buries it.

The film is adapted from comedian and television personality Steve Harvey's undoubtedly well-concered, sober-minded, and not at all condescending relationship guide Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, and for long stretches the movie feels something like an infomercial: the women in the cast gush and coo over how brilliant and insightful the text is, and the men, when they learn of it, act with terror and alarm that would have been slightly overwrought if it were nuclear arming codes during the Cold War and not a flippant collection of "men are boys, haha silly boys, deny them sex" anecdotes. This would be more troubling if the bar for movies adapted from non-fiction advice books wasn't so low (how I wish I could here write "Coming soon: What to Expect When You're Expecting: The Movie", and be joking), and as it stands, the worst parts of the movie are consistently those where we're actively exposed to Harvey's actual prose; for this, too, draws attention to exactly how much what's going on is a cliché and makes suspension of disbelief harder, if not outright impossible.

But, you know, clichés aren't inherently bad, when they're being used as tools rather than crutches, and Think Like a Man isn't trying to rise above its genre rather than simply work as a particularly appealing example of it. And that is mostly done through the acting, which is superlative right down the line (Terrence J is much the weakest member of the main cast; it's a lot harder to say who's strongest, though I'm mostly torn between Ealy and Union), with the actors never talking down to the material (maybe Henson, once or twice), and instead staking out whatever the most reasonable, human being-ish position they can find relative to the script; and helped out too by some punchy dialogue that will win absolutely no awards for being clever, but at least flows naturally and when it is obvious, does not pretend to impress us by being better than it is. And it's also a fine return to form for Tim Story, who ten years ago made a relaxed, charming hang-out movie in Barbershop before wandering into the thickets of the dense Fantastic Four and the ludicrous Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and has happily returned to the infinitely lower-key and more satisfying pleasure of watching people that are fun and appealing interact in fun and appealing ways. That all of this comes wrapped in a package that eagerly and urgently stresses every cloying gender stereotype of the worst kind of shticky humor is dismaying; that the whole thing clocks in north of two hours is nearly unforgivable. But it's all so frivolous and light in touch that it still manages to be fun, if more in the "what a neat way to waste time!" register than the "what a smart, insightful comedy of manners!" register. But even that, for a contemporary romcom, is a real achievement, and I cannot deny that leaving Think Like a Man, I was in a far better mood than when I went in.

7/10

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