Michael Ealy, left, and Taraji P. Henson in "Think Like a Man." (Alan Markfield / Sreen Gems…)
Relaxed yet lively, the byplay in "Think Like a Man" has some of the spark of director Tim Story's "Barbershop" a decade ago. The movie may be the very definition of contrivance, coming as it does from the blithely sexist relationship guide "Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man" co-written by radio host and comedian Steve Harvey. Considering its source, though, one of the more unpromising comedies of the year has turned out to be pretty funny.
Few bestsellers ever got that way underestimating the American public's taste for generalities about the gender wars. Harvey's 2009 "how to" divides humans into two camps: those with "the cookie" (women) and the cookie monsters (men). Harvey and co-writer Denene Millner categorize the ones with the cookies as either "sports fish" or those deserving of the label of "keeper," someone who "understands her power and wields it like a samurai sword."
"A woman's love," writes Harvey, "is emotional, nurturing, heartfelt -- sweet and kind and all-encompassing." But as he later writes, "Please understand: the way we men connect is by having sex. Period." How did director Story and screenwriters Keith Merryman and David A. Newman ("Friends With Benefits") squeeze an enjoyable film out of this? By retaining Harvey's archetypes but getting creative about humanizing the people wearing the labels. The guys consist of the Player (Romany Malco), the Mama's Boy (Terrence J), the Dreamer (Michael Ealy), the Non-Committer (Jerry Ferrara), the Happily Married Guy (Gary Owen) and the Happily Divorced Guy (Kevin Hart). Their ladies, former, current and future, break down into equally slick headlines. Meagan Good is the 90-Day Rule Girl, tired of casual sex and eager to enforce the book's 90-Day rule (no cookies for three months). And so on.
As the movie jumps from one couple to the next, with everybody stealing strategies and counter-strategies from the same bestseller by Harvey (who appears on screen as well), a funny thing happens. We begin to care about how some of these folks work it out. Scenes entirely off the plot, set on the basketball court or in a bar, generate real laughs. And it's a pleasure to see Taraji P. Henson dig down into a cliche -- that of a high-powered, tightly wound businesswoman (known here, queasily, as the Woman Who Is Her Own Man) -- and come back with someone a little bit complicated. Compare Henson's work here to Janet Jackson swallowing the more melodramatic "Why Did I Get Married Too?" whole, and you have the difference between a sparkling team player playing with equally strong cohorts, and a one-gulp solo act.
"Think Like a Man" is what it is. But its hangout factor is considerable, because the actors' charms are considerable. The verbal jokes are often unexpected and often witty. As opposed to certain holiday-themed Garry Marshall ensemble comedies I won't be re-watching on New Year's Eve or Valentine's Day, this one sticks to a formula without falling prey to it.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content, crude humor and brief drug use
Running time: 2 hours
Playing: In general release