Review: ‘Think Like a Man’ offers quality cast and rom-com conventions

Clichéd romantic comedies are a dime a dozen. Clichéd romantic comedies with predominantly black casts are not so easy to find, which gives the overly familiar “Think Like a Man” a sort of co-opted freshness. We”ve seen these stories before, but not with this cast. Sometimes that makes all the difference.

Inspired by a sincere relationship advice book of the same name by comedian Steve Harvey, “Think Like a Man” uses Harvey”s non-fiction foundation to weave a collection of interlocking stories about a group of male friends and the women they”re meant to be with. While Harvey”s book was aimed at women (supposedly offering them tips on what”s going on inside the mind of the opposite sex), the script by “Friends with Benefits” writers Keith Merryman and David A. Newman deliberately places the men at its center to try to keep the appeal gender neutral. That works because the women still drive the action.

The four key relationships are anchored in recognizable rom-com tropes, inviting audiences to draw their own comforting comparisons with movies still in heavy rotation on cable TV. Just like Jennifer Aniston in “He”s Just Not That Into You,” Kristen (Gabrielle Union) wishes her live-in boyfriend Jeremy (Jerry Ferrara) would grow up and propose already. Like Renée Zellweger in “Jerry Maguire” crossed with Jennifer Lopez in “Monster-in-Law,” Candace (Regina Hall) is a single mom who thinks Michael (Terrence J) might be the right match for her and her son, until she meets his overbearing mother (Jenifer Lewis).

Like Katherine Heigl in “The Ugly Truth” by way of Emma Stone in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.,” Mya (Meagan Good) is a young woman sick of getting played (by creeps like Chris Brown in a bizarrely self-deprecating cameo) who drives playboy Zeke (Romany Malco) nuts by withholding sex in her search for love. And like Sanaa Lathan in “Something New,” Lauren (Taraji P. Henson) is a successful businesswoman who struggles with her feelings for Dominic (Michael Ealy), an aspiring chef she considers below her social status.

The stories are trite but the performances are engaging, and even with a hefty two-hour running time director Tim Story (“Barbershop,” “Fantastic Four”) keeps the film light and breezy. None of the various threads are weak enough to upset the balance, and on the whole “Think Like a Man” is considerably less inane than similar ensemble efforts like “He”s Just Not That Into You” and Garry Marshall”s “Valentine”s Day” and “New Year”s Eve.” Low benchmarks to be sure, but that”s where we”re at with rom-coms right now.

And yet with no Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts or Sarah Jessica Parker in sight, “Think Like a Man” is bound to be treated as a niche product, marginalized for the very reasons it deserves wider exposure. Henson, Good, Union and Hall aren”t huge stars – and neither are any of their leading men – but they”re skilled actresses and comediennes, relishing a chance to play the leading lady and not just the best friend.

Any opportunity to watch couples with the chemistry of Henson and Ealy or Good and Malco shouldn”t be taken for granted. And “Think Like a Man” also offers more evidence that Kevin Hart – consistently funny in a strictly comedic supporting role as the lone member of the gang going through a divorce – is on a fast track to movie stardom. (Whether that”s minor or major stardom depends on the decisions he makes, but the opportunities will be there.)

One of the few arguments in support of Tyler Perry”s empire is that he provides showcases for talented black actors who are otherwise asked to be content with the meager opportunities offered by Hollywood. “Think Like a Man” does that too, and does it better. The filmmakers know they”re playing in Perry”s world – he”s referenced multiple times, including a meta-inside joke about “For Colored Girls” from Ealy (who co-starred in “For Colored Girls”) – but they don”t play Perry”s game and burden the film with unnecessary melodrama or embarrassingly broad humor.

The obvious question: Are all of these relative virtues actually victories when a perfectly OK movie still isn”t as inventive or sharply executed as the very best of the genre? Whether you consider the glass half empty or half full, there”s no denying it”s halfway.

“Think Like a Man” opens in theaters April 20