Sometimes finding your ideal soul mate is like playing a game of chess; you develop the best strategy, a specific set of moves to obtain your goal. In executing it, you try to move past any defenses without putting yourself in jeopardy. And if done correctly, you reach success in capturing your king (or queen) for a savory victory known as “checkmate.”

That is the same logic that drives Think Like a Man, a honest and insightful film adaptation of the 2009 New York Times best-selling self-help book, Act like a Lady, Think like a Man, by author Steve Harvey.

In the film, women use tips from Harvey’s book — the ultimate “male psyche” study guide — to turn their men into ideal mates. In one early scene, they flock to stores with eager anticipation to purchase the book as it is portrayed as a “life changing read” (the only scene which feels staged and unnatural). Harvey is like a guru, telling the women exactly what maneuvers and rules should be followed to ensure romantic success. They listen intently, and follow through with the writer’s plan to get a leg up on their men. Thus, the book’s advice helps create a new breed of women who then start rocking the relationship boat with new rules and requirements thought to be essential in the dating game.

Kristen (Gabrielle Union), after reading the book, gets up the nerve to push her long-time, childish boyfriend Jeremy (Jerry Ferrara), labeled the “non-committer,” into throwing away his toys and finally growing up and committing because she is the “woman who wants the wedding ring” (just one of the several “types” that each of the characters are classified under in the film).

Mya (Meagan Good) challenges self-professed player Zeke (Romany Malco) to abstain from sex for 90 days — per Harvey’s recommendation — in an effort to build an emotional connection.

Michael (Terrance Jenkins), a mama’s boy, has a major balancing act on his hands when it comes to loving both his mother Loretta (Jenifer Lewis) and his girlfriend, Candace (Regina Hall), who also happens to be a single mom. Candace is unwilling to compete with Michael’s overbearing mother, who can’t seem to let her son be a man.

And aspiring chef Dominic (Michael Ealy), known as the “dreamer,” tries to win the affections of a powerful, well-off executive named Lauren (Taraji P. Henson), who has a rather intimidating list for her ideal mate including someone who makes six figures and is more than six-feet-tall (the most appealing storyline by far). She is described as “the woman who is her own man” and needs materialistic proof of a man’s success.

You also have Bennett (Gary Owen), the happily married Caucasian father who is not afraid to defend his lifestyle to his African-American friends, and Cedric (Kevin Hart), the loudmouth headed for divorce, who actually is the film’s brash narrator.

The structure is clever and significantly different from most ensemble relationship comedies, in that it features a predominantly African-American cast. But what is most distinctive is that the movie rolls with a calculated way of thinking. Writers Keith Merryman and David A. Newman create character or personality types that are perhaps one-dimensional and stereotypical like the non-committer or mama’s boy, and then position those same characters against their exact, or near exact, opposites. Their decision to rely on the simplistic and rather superficial individualities can be easily perceived as a method of taking away the excitement of predicting and analyzing their flaws as well as eliminating the discovery process of every minute detail of the character’s lives, but in retrospect, it actually sets up an interesting dynamic within the pairings. The “types” are forced to wage war with their significant others, unlike the edifice in such movies as Valentine’s Day or He’s Just Not That into You, where characters were more likely to succumb to the wishes of their partner without much of a fight. In this way, the gender politics get very lively and entertaining, as the individuals battle for dominance and control — like on D-day, dubbed by Cedric as the day when the men find out about the women’s strategy.

The boys’ club scene unfolds like that in The Hangover, where the Bradley Cooper-led bunch attempts to put together some missing clues after a wild night. Whilst coming up with a deceptive counter-attack for revenge, the men ultimately decide to use the book’s advice against the women. In that way, the playbook becomes a catalyst for the characters’ actions — a structural decision with some pitfalls that eventually makes the picture seem like a shameful endorsement for Harvey’s book; a poor choice that catapults the film’s charismatic flair.

With Harvey often popping up, by the movie’s end, viewers pretty much know everything about the book and him without even having to turn a page. His overwhelming presence is perhaps the film’s biggest weakness, as his constant advice contributes to a predictable pattern, especially when the men find out about the book. From such discovery, viewers almost immediately assume that the men’s lies will be unveiled and break-ups will undoubtedly ensue. And they are almost unreservedly right as there is not much of a jump to look forward to with the anticipated romantic outcomes that befall the characters on screen.

To the movie’s credit, it has an almost gut-busting and hearty sense of humor, much of it thanks to the character of Cedric, who cuts into the scrambled pieces of his friends’ romantic lives with a gritty and raunchy wit. The guys also throw jabs and zings at each other while talking at their favorite Los Angeles sports bar and playing basketball — those are the strongest scenes for their freeing trash talk and unhinged honesty. Director Tim Story creates very swift, but slick scenes with an easy humor, which permeated through the storyline of his breakout film, 2002’s Barbershop. But, despite its feats, the humor is secondary here, only meant to illuminate the characters’ problems within their relationships — a surprisingly safe decision from a director who is known to take risks with such films as the fictional Fantastic Four movies.

Nevertheless, with a predominantly African-American cast, this film’s uphill battle to finding a wider audience seems to have a victorious end. It seems that the “love is a battlefield” story line is universal, and is a message that just about any human being can relate to and understand at one time or another. Not to mention, you also have some surprising cameo appearances that are worth sticking around for until the film’s end.

As for the actors, Hart, Ealy, and Henson seem to be the breakout stars when it comes to solid performances. Hart, seen in other romantic-comedies such as Along came Polly (2004) and Fool’s Gold (2008), is genuinely funny as usual. Ealy, of Barbershop and its sequel, delivers his lines with a cool sensitivity that will surely appeal to female viewers. And Henson, known for more dramatic roles like that of Queenie in 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, is sassy and self-assured — quite believable for the character. Still, not all is positive as newer actors like Jenkins and LaLa Anthony — the supportive friend of Good’s character — seem uncomfortable or try too hard at times.

Yet, in the midst of these gaps, the chemistry among the whole cast shines brightly on screen, setting the film apart from other rom-coms. Sure, the story bounces back and forth between each couple following the overused “get-together, break-up, and get back together” pattern, but the characters’ chemistry possesses an animal magnetism that produces an irresistible pull into liking them. As they open up and appear somewhat vulnerable in talking about their romantic hardships with each other, they give viewers something easy to relate and identify with in the film. Audience members, like the ones watching the film next to me, will have fun watching the couples go through more ups and downs than the stock market as the reconciliation is equally gratifying, but not to the point where it leaves a domineering saccharine aftertaste. Overall, Think Like a Man is an engaging ride into the world of desire and love as we watch the characters find their predictable, yet happy endings through hapless mind games, which, at the end of the day, are nowhere as vicious as The Hunger Games.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

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