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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 26, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Think Like a Man

The Hollywood news is that the new movie Think Like a Man went into profit on its opening weekend.

This is good news for everybody associated with the movie -- and for us, the movie-going public.

This movie is funny without being gross, sexy without being pornographic, and it makes you think about relationships between men and women.

You know how much I've enjoyed Tyler Perry's all-black comedies, but they've always shown their roots in stage comedy. That is, Tyler Perry allows himself a degree of unreality -- in the writing, in the acting -- that is perfectly acceptable on stage, where theatricality is a virtue; but it stretches the boundaries of what works in film, where we expect much greater realism.

Think Like a Man tips its hat to Tyler Perry by mentioning him early in the film; and why shouldn't it? Without the financial success of Perry's films, this movie would probably not exist. Perry proved that there's a large mixed-race audience for mostly-black-cast middle-of-the-road comedies.

No, Perry created that audience. It wasn't sitting there waiting for him. There was a middle-class black audience starved for movies aimed at them, movies that depicted their lives instead of the endless films about the ghetto and gangs.

And there was an even larger grown-up white audience starved for movies aimed at them, movies that didn't rely on childish grossness or offensively explicit sex.

Tyler Perry meant to aim for the first group, but because he was true to his Christian values, he almost accidentally gathered the second group and opened them up to the strange truth that in Hollywood, the only characters that take Christian values seriously allowed in movies today are African-Americans.

Now, there's little that's overtly Christian in Think Like a Man. Nor is the cast completely black -- there's a token pasty-white guy (Gary Owen) and another (Jerry Ferrara) who looks Mediterranean.

The fact is that Think Like a Man is an American movie about the war between the sexes that happens to have a mostly black cast.

There are men who are players, men who are functioning more like little boys, men who are way too devoted to their mothers, men who are trying to rise out of their social class, men who are ready for love and men who aren't.

And then there are women, some who care way too much about money, some who are impatient with the failings of their men, but ... mostly, they're just kind of standard women characters who are just trying to put up with the foibles and inadequacies of men.

In other words, Think Like a Man, enjoyable as it is, is hip-deep in the pathetic-male cliches of contemporary American romantic comedy.

You know what I'm talking about: The movie always starts with the assumption that the women are right about everything, and any differences with men come from male weaknesses.

Only one woman (Taraji P. Henson, the cop in Person of Interest) is shown as having any flaws -- she cares too much about money. She is paired with the one guy (Michael Ealy) who has no flaws; he just happens to be poor, with potential.

In other words, formula rules, along with stock anti-male sexism.

But it's done so charmingly that as long as you aren't taking the ideas in the movie seriously, you can simply enjoy the ride. All the performers are excellent; the writing, within the boundaries of cliche, is delightful; and the jokes mostly work (which is way above average for romantic comedy).

With the movie following a half-dozen couples, this is well within the multi-thread tradition of Love, Actually, Valentine's Day, New Year's Eve, and He's Just Not That Into You. You know, lots of couples, lots of storylines that explore all possible combinations of personality traits ...

But of that list, two are classics (Love, Actually and He's Just Not That Into You) and two are so appallingly bad it was hard to be both awake and inside the theater at the same time.

That's perhaps because the two classics were about something -- besides making money, that is. Love, Actually set out to show every kind of love, and succeeded brilliantly. He's Just Not That Into You was based on a first-rate book about how people (especially women) talk themselves into trying to stay in relationships where the other person is never, ever going to commit.

Think Like a Man is also based on a book -- Steve Harvey's bestseller Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man. The trouble is, Harvey's book is not as good -- not as deep, not as true -- as He's Just Not That Into You.

Truth is, Harvey has simply bought into a bunch of stereotypes and didn't have that much that was interesting to say about them. It's mostly a list of ways guys can be inadequate, and how to deal with them.

But I don't actually know any guys who are as clear-cut, case-study-like as the male characters in this movie. Basically, instead of being characters, each man represent exactly one character trait. It's the charm of the actors that makes them seem like actual humans.

In the real world, having a collection of movie memorabilia doesn't make you immature, it just means you have a collection of movie memorabilia. If you also are unwilling to commit to marriage, that's a separate problem.

So when the woman involved with that male character tried to "help" him "grow up" by stashing his entire collection in boxes and redecorating their shared living space in a way that completely erased his identity, I found it so arrogant and shocking that I expected the guy to move out.

It was a sign of weakness and passivity that he accepted this high-handed action and agreed that he had been in the wrong!

But that's the cliche of American culture today -- the guy is always wrong.

And that's the weakness of this movie. With one exception, the guy is always wrong and needs to change; once he does, everything will be fine.

Wouldn't it be lovely if life were so easy? But when relationships turn toxic, it's usually because both partners are contributing their own toxins to the mix, and both need to change if the relationship is going to become healthy.

For me, the real problem is that Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man is well within that genre of war-of-the-sexes books that counsels manipulation instead of candid conversation. You know, like the notorious Fascinating Womanhood of forty years ago, and The Rules in more recent years.

What made He's Just Not That Into You so helpful is that it was not a bag of tricks to get your way with a member of the opposite sex. It was informational only: If he acts like this, he's really not in love with you, so stop kidding yourself.

Act Like a Lady, on the other hand, seems to be counseling women on how to get men to act the way you want -- or at least that's the way the book is used in the movie.

The movie He's Just Not That Into You never mentioned the book, because it was the book -- it had documentary bits and titles that headed up sections, as if the whole movie were a series of case studies. But because the writing was really excellent, and the script was not slave to the book, most of the characters emerged whole and fully developed.

In fact, as I was contemplating this review, He's Just Not That Into You went into late-night rotation on USA Network. I started watching it an hour in, and couldn't stop; I recorded the next showing and also watched it from beginning to end. Then the next afternoon my wife and I watched it again together.

It still made me laugh. It still made me cry. It still felt true on most of the points it makes. It's a great movie.

The movie Think Like a Man, on the other hand, never lets the characters react as real people would. And the book, instead of being the basis of the film, is almost another character in it.

No, the film is like one long ad for the book -- and, like ads, like infomercials, the book is touted as if it were changing the world.

All the women read the book and change their behavior accordingly; all the men find out about it and read it too, and then act to fulfil the women's expectations; and then the women find out the men have read it and react as if there was something manipulative and false about the men's having tried to please them.

The double standard is so obvious that it should have been mentioned as a main point in the movie -- but never is. When the women read Harvey's book and listen to Harvey on television and talk about what they've learned, this is treated as a completely good thing.

But when the men try to behave differently in order to get around women who are using the book to try to get around men, then that is treated as a kind of cheating.

Why? This reaction doesn't make sense at all. If a man is behaving the way you want him to, but doing it consciously instead of just responding reflexively to your manipulation, what's wrong with that?

It's a question the movie never addresses. It's the black hole at the heart of the film.

I'm sure the answer would be, "Lighten up, it's just a comedy."

But it's not just a comedy. It purports to say something important and true about the relationship between men and women -- and it doesn't. Instead, it stacks the deck, never letting people act the way people really do.

Just because the performers are charming and the writing is funny doesn't change the fact that the movie depends entirely on the premise that it's ok for women to manipulate and deceive men in order to get their way, but it's not ok for men to catch on and then try to comply with the women's plan.

Think Like a Man is a very entertaining movie -- way better than the cynical, empty Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve.

But where Love, Actually is in my alltime top ten movies, and He's Just Not That Into You makes my top fifty (maybe my top twenty), Think Like a Man doesn't make my top two hundred.

Because when you invite the audience to think, when you pretend that you're saying something important and true, then you should actually say something important and true.

Not for one second does Think Like a Man say something true. Men aren't like that. Relationships aren't healed this way. Manipulation doesn't make for good marriages, no matter who's doing the manipulation. Neither sex has the right to treat the other like a puppet.

So yes, Think Like a Man made me think -- but what I ended up thinking was, This movie shows zero understanding of either sex, and is flat wrong about how healthy relationships work, period.

But it's funny, and these are terrific actors, and so the movie is really worth seeing.

Once.

Then sit down and talk to the person you love about all the ways that this movie gets it completely, utterly wrong, and resolve that you will never treat each other the way this movie advocates.

That will put you one giant step forward on the road to a healthy relationship.


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