It was said that the key to the political success of the 19th century statesman Benjamin Disraeli, the first and only Prime Minister of the United Kingdom born to a Jewish family, was that he followed the motto “Speak British, think Yiddish.” With rather more meager credentials, the comedian Steve Harvey published a book of romantic advice for women called Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man: What Men Really Think About Love, Intimacy, and Commitment. The book offered such secrets of the male psyche as “Boys shack; men build homes” and “Don’t hate the player; change the game” — wisdom Harvey presumably gleaned from his three marriages (two divorces) and from hosting the latest edition of Family Feud. Women made the book a No. 1 best-seller in 2009, perhaps because they were amused by a man, and a stand-up comic at that, trying to practice vajournalism.
Other movies made from advice books have sprouted songs, as in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, or subverted the very notion of erotic self-help: Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). For their screenplay of Think Like a Man, Keith Merryman and David A. Newman took a more modest approach, creating characters with different humors to embody Harvey’s homiletics. The result isn’t exactly Restoration comedy in full flower; but, as directed by Tim Story (Barbershop), it’s an ensemble piece that packs more easy enjoyment than I was expecting or, even now, care to admit to.
(READ: Belinda Luscombe’s Q&A with Steve Harvey)
Six guys meet regularly to play basketball: the placidly married token Anglo guy (Gary Owen), the Italian Jeremy (Jerry Ferrara, who was Turtle on Entourage) and four blacks. Dominic (Michael Ealy from Barbershop), who dreams of being a chef, hooks up with the status-conscious, Fortune-500 COO Lauren (Benjamin Button’s Taraji P. Henson). Zeke (Romany Malko) is a player who can’t get the vulnerable Mya (Meagan Good) on the fast track to the bedroom. The mama’s boy Michael (Terence J) takes flack from mom (Jenifer Lewis) when he hooks up with single mother Candace (Regina Hall). The recently divorced Cedric (Kevin Hall) boasts of his freedom, but his loneliness and panic are as evident as his flop sweat. And Jeremy’s realtor girlfriend Kristen (Gabrielle Union of Deliver Us from Eva) is impatient for him to take time from his video games to, in two words, grow up.
The women have been using the Harvey tome to gain the advantages in love that they have earned in their careers. They feel empowered being reminded that, in the banquet of sex, they “control the cookie.” The men are domesticated enough to bide their time. Zeke is frustrated that his five-date maximum for bedding a woman has been superseded by Mya’s “90-Day Rule” — “I’m a Negro gigolo,” he complains to his pals, “the original nigolo” — but he acquiesces because love makes sex worth waiting for.
(READ: What Makes a Bad Boyfriend?)
Halfway through the film, they discover the women’s playbook and, by furtively consulting it, are able to anticipate all feminine strategies; one says, “It was like takin’ a test you already had the answers to.” But in an entertainment scrupulously devised for date nights, maturing means that the men must be feminized. When Jeremy finally pops the question to Candace, he blurts out, “I want to be your wife.”
That the movie’s writers are white, and Harvey and most of the actors African-American, is just one reason for homogenized tone of the piece. Merryman and Newman also wrote last year’s Friends With Benefits, a romantic comedy that knowingly parodied and exploited the conventions of the genre. Similarly, Think Like a Man both mocks and genuflects before the ensemble romances that came before it.
(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Friends With Benefits)
Besides being a two-hour infomercial for the book, the movie isn’t far from Tyler Perry’s relationship dramedies (Ealy, Union and Hall have all been in Perry films), but with a higher brow, a brisker pace and gentler mood swings. At other times the PG-13 movie seems tiptoeing toward the chattier parts of Zane’s Sex Chronicles on late-night Cinemax. It talks endlessly about sex, and features some major sloppy kisses, but only on the way to enough public declarations of love to fill an Oprah hugathon. The film embraces emotion without quite degenerating into crynography, that wretched excess of sentiment; it wants audiences to leave with a smile, not wracking sobs all the way home.
Schematic and borderline dogmatic, Think Like a Man still gives welcome space for its charming cast to behave and misbehave becomingly. It’s a treat to see Henson, Oscar-nominated as Benjamin Button’s saintly adoptive mother, strut a modern-day sexual confidence, even if her Lauren has to suffer a comeuppance. (The movie, like Soul Food and many a Perry parable, is more class-conscious than race-conscious.) Most of the other characters escape stern judgment. These 30-something folks, comfortable in their circumstances and their skins, are allowed to be smart of heart if baffled by the 21st-century courtship game.
There’s nothing profound going on here; the truisms don’t blossom into life-enriching truths. It’s more like the person you meet at a bar who, on second glance, is surprisingly attractive. Call Think Like a Man a perfectly satisfactory one-night stand at the movies.