The recent habit of filmmakers resorting to self-help books for inspiration has turned in results ranging from uneven – He’s Just Not That Into You – to unsavoury – What to Expect When You’re Expecting – but Think Like A Man’s postmodern sensibility, unafraid of making its author look a little silly, makes it one of the better efforts of its type.
Right out of the gate, Friends with Benefits scribes Keith Merryman and David A. Newman riff on a society that is more sexualised than ever, and therefore purportedly better for men, shifting the balance, so to speak. We meet the principals – the Player (Romany Malco), the Momma’s Boy (Terrence Jenkins), the Dreamer (Michael Ealy), the Non-Committer (Jerry Ferrara), the Happily-Married Man (Gary Owen), and the Happily-Divorced Man (Kevin Hart) – as they discuss gender politics in a silly-mature way that we don’t see nearly enough in contemporary cinema. Typically, the rom-com aims at either the young crowd, like with American Pie, or shoots for seriousness and often winds up maudlin – this is a nice middle ground.
Refreshingly glossing over its black-and-white racial banter in the first ten minutes, some pretty hilarious digs at Tyler Perry’s virulent “race pictures” ensure that this is not that type of film. Again, expectations are subverted moments later rather cleverly, as Steve Harvey’s titular self-help book is itself referenced, and continues to be throughout the course of the film. The book, read by the film’s women – the Single Mom (Regina Hall), the Girl Who Knows What She Wants (Gabrielle Union), the 90-Day Rule Girl (Meagan Good) and the Woman Who Is Her Own Man (Taraji P. Henson) – is utilised as a weapon by both sides in this war of the sexes.
What really works is how not all of the film’s characters take to the book – the film bravely engages with all viewpoints, especially Henson’s character, who amusingly brands it “sexist crap”. From here the film settles into a rigorous but entertaining series of match-ups between the gender groups; setting the cogs in motion, regrouping with each gender, and repeating this until film’s end. It works because of the cast’s successful charm offensive; while the individual exchanges hardly provide huge insight into gender politics, the chuckles are consistent, and the sparks fly in all directions.
The characters most fun to watch are unquestionably Henson’s intimidatingly confident businesswoman, Ferrara’s Xbox-addicted manchild, and Good’s cautious girl trying to last 90 days dating a man without having sex with him. We know who will end up with who, but the fun is seeing the how and why. The charming performances – which are neither too silly nor too dramatic – go a long way, feeling realistic enough, but primarily, being keen to make us laugh. Nothing gets too high stakes or overwrought, and the inevitable fact that several of the stories interlink is nipped in the bud early on, rather than ladled unto us as a twist later.
Just as the pic seems to be running out of steam – particularly during a needless confrontation between Kevin Hart’s character and some oversized basketball players – the whole thing is flipped once again, as the men get hold of Harvey’s book and play suitably to its expectations. In a dramedy running in at 123-minutes, this extra twist gives it the zest needed to chug along to the finish line.
The odd schmaltzy line – especially from Ealy’s sensitive character – is offset by the sweetness of it all, particularly Jenkins’ Momma’s Boy teaching his girlfriend’s son to ride a bike. At the same time, it doesn’t hew too far from honesty and realism, as Henson’s character is at one stage tempted by a rich, suave ex-boyfriend.
It might drag on a little too long, and it hardly surprises, but the writers have a knack for scenes that make us smile. Also its ultimate resolution, that taking stringent life advice from a book is a fool’s game, is sort of hilarious given Harvey’s participation – he patently does not seem aware. As far as adaptations of self-help books go, this one – which bites back at the source material – is one of the recent best.
Think Like A Man is in cinemas Friday.