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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review: Think Like a Man

The Movie Report

*** 1/2; Rated PG-13

The idea of a film based on Steve Harvey's bestseller Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man sounds more than a bit dubious; after all, a narrative feature based on what is essentially a self-help book? But with Think Like a Man, director Tim Story and screenwriters Keith Merryman and David A. Newman have unlocked the material in as cinematic a way as ideally possible. They go beyond merely using the title as a springboard for a premise (like, for instance, He's Just Not That into You) and consistently calling back to the source in a way that made sense to the plot lines, fashioning it into basically another character--and Harvey's book is the troublemaker of the ensemble that shakes up the romantic status quo for most of the rest of the canvas: The Player (Romany Malco), The Mama's Boy (Terrence J), The Dreamer (Michael Ealy), The Non-Committer (Jerry Ferrara); and their respective matches, The 90-Day Rule Girl (Meagan Good), The Single Mom (Regina Hall), The Woman Who Is Her Own Man (Taraji P. Henson), and The Ring Girl (Gabrielle Union). Acting as bemused bystanders most of the way are The Happily Married Guy (Gary Owen) and, most notably, The Even Happier Divorced Guy (Kevin Hart), who narrates and comments on all the intergender byplay and--perhaps more accurately--warfare.

Those assigned labels are not my own snarky, reductive invention. While this is another of the wave of large ensemble rom-coms where everyone generally falls into an identifiable character type, making for a conveniently, if not always realistically, varied canvas to follow, Story and the writers not only acknowledge but rather proudly own such a contrivance/convention from the jump, from Hart's introductory voiceover identifying the guys to even title cards identifying each pairing. This also nicely serves to solidify the connection with the source material, taking types from the book and thus having certain scenarios from it play out in storylines in the film proper. Of course, mere self-awareness of the types and formulae don't make compelling viewing alone. There needs to be the right actors to bring them life and personality, and across the board everyone fits their part like a glove, both in ways that fit their established wheelhouses (such as the jovially wisecracking Hart) or show sides they had not yet had the opportunity to do so on screen (such the gifted Henson, finally getting an opportunity to fulfill her Glamorous Romantic Leading Lady destiny; relative big screen newcomer Terrence, who is a bit of a revelation; Chris Brown, in an amusingly goofy turn).

Even more crucial, however, is the chemistry between the actors, and in terms of both the romantic couples and the camaraderie between the guys and girls, and on both counts the film gets it right, having both the agreeable, infectious sense of humor and genuine, welcoming likability and therefore investment. Also helping immeasurably is that the flavor of each duet, much like the character types, have their distinctive flavor and appeal. Union and Ferrara have the believable, warmly "lived-in" energy of a pair that's been together for what feels like forever (a nice costuming touch is having her often wear clothes that are clearly his). On the opposite end are Henson and Ealy, bringing the intense erotic heat of immediate, impetuous passion while also forging a palpable connection that could serve as a foundation for something deeper. Lying between those two are the very cute Terrence/Hall coupling, who easily convince that there would be a genuine and substantial rapport despite their differences in age and circumstance; and the sexual suppression and resulting tension of the Malco/Good pairing makes for choice comic moments and a satisfying, cathartic release as their relationship blooms into something neither of them planned nor expected.

Bringing it all together is Story, and as he showed in the original Barbershop, he not only knows how to bring balance to such an expansive multi-character and -story piece but also make every thread feel part of a cohesive whole. No one story nor character dominates (though, naturally, there are scene/movie stealers--and the timing could not be more perfect for Hart, coming off of the box office success of Laugh at My Pain, and more than likely this will be the big springboard for a proper, major starring vehicle for his considerable comic talents), and everyone gets a chance to shine, whether comically or dramatically or both. Story's able, indispensable guidance is almost certain to be underrated, given how this is of the most notoriously formula of genres and hence is more notably personality/actor-driven. But one need only look at Garry Marshall's recent twin fiascoes of holiday-themed ensemble rom-coms, Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve, to see just how such a film requires a strong, careful directorial hand--which, ultimately, is how and why Think Like a Man ends up being one of the best mainstream date movies to come out in recent memory.

Order the Think Like a Man poster here.
Order the Think Like a Man DVD here.
Order the Think Like a Man Blu-ray here.
Order the Think Like a Man soundtrack here.
Order the Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man book here.

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