The genre's fallen into a formulaic rut, but this past weekend's box-office hit offers a different kind of story.
The romantic comedy is dead, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott declared four years ago. "The dispiriting, uninspired sameness of romantic comedy strikes me as something of a scandal," he wrote upon the release of the formulaic Katherine Heigl vehicle 27 Dresses. His issue with recent additions to the genre wasn't simply their predictability, he said, but the fact that their "notion of love is insipid, shallow and frequently ludicrous."
The intervening years haven't done much to improve Scott's picture of the genre. We've gotten The Proposal (2009), How Do You Know (2010), and No Strings Attached/Friends With Benefits (2011)—all joyless retreadings of the plotlines and the messages that Scott decried in 2008. This year has offered audiences more sameness and more shallow depictions of love. This Means War showed Reese Witherspoon in a familiar "dilemma": choosing between two equally attractive male suitors. Friends With Kids, which broke with convention in some ways, ended up being, at its core, a by-the-numbers rom-com. The movie opens with a man and a woman vowing they'll never be a couple and ends with them declaring their love to one another. Scott's criticism holds up—recycled storylines aren't the only things wrong with these movies. The real problem is the assumption in all these films that relational bliss comes from finding the "right" person. This Means War, Friends With Kids, 27 Dresses,and countless other modern romances devote most of their runtimes to watching a couple get together. They end with the first kiss or the avowal of love, and ask the audience to assume the central couple goes on to live happily ever after.
But this weekend, the romantic comedy showed signs of life. The sweetly funny Think Like a Man came out, offering a fresh, mature take on the traditional storyline. Its plot breaks from the romantic-comedy "sameness" by showing couples' struggles to stay together, not get together. By focusing on trying to stay in love rather than fall in love, the movie offers a radically different message about relationships than many of its rom-com cousins. Romantic bliss comes not from meeting the ideal person, the movie seems to say, but learning how to love an imperfect person.
The movie's first departure from the standard romantic-comedy mold comes at the beginning, when it introduces the four central couples. Three of the pairs started dating recently, while one has been together since college, but it's no mystery that these relationships will all still be intact by the time the credits roll. The question then becomes not "Will they fall for each other?" but "How will they make their relationships work?"
All the couples answer that question in different ways, as they all have their own barriers to commitment. There's the high-powered executive who can't handle the fact that she's dating an unemployed waiter. There's the woman who doesn't know how to get her new boyfriend to stick around for more than a few dates. There's the mama's boy whose loyalties are divided between his girlfriend and his demanding mother. And there's the woman who's been living with her college boyfriend for years and desperately wants him to marry her.
The woman in each of these relationships finds herself—sometimes reluctantly, sometimes deliberately—reading Steve Harvey's 2009 self-help book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man. The book offers solutions to each couple's dilemma: For Miss High Standards, Harvey says, "there is no perfect man." For the woman who's sick of one-night stands, Harvey imposes the 90-Day Rule—no sex for the first three months of a relationship. And for the women dating men who can't quite grow up and commit, Harvey advocates a series of semi-awkward conversations about short- and long-term goals. Sure, the advice is delivered in slick, gimmicky soundbytes, but ultimately it's solid. Communicate. Stand up for yourself. Stop expecting to find the perfect man.
The men (who are all basketball buddies) don't see it that way, of course. When they discover that their girlfriends are deploying Harvey's advice on them, they're horrified. "This man is a traitor," they say of Harvey. They resolve to read the book secretly and use its advice against the women. Cue the sports metaphors and declarations of war.
The men soon realize, however, that the book's counsel makes their lives better. They actually enjoy what the film calls "stepping up": making commitments, finding better jobs, growing up. "Things were almost going too well," Think Like a Man's narrator says as the men start following Harvey's advice. "The guys forgot they were at war." That line is the closest thing the movie has to a statement of purpose: The best way to end the battle of the sexes is for both sides to realize that there doesn't have to be a battle in the first place.
Along the way, Think Like a Man eschews many of the genre's most grating clichés. There are no late-night eurekas where one character realizes he's "meant to be" with another character. No boom-boxes. No heroes dashing through the rain to make a dramatic declaration of love. No show-stopping lines like "you complete me" or even "fuck the shit out of me." Just a bunch of people trying to understand and be understood by their romantic partners.
Think Like a Man is not the first movie to push back against the "sameness" of romantic comedies. Why Did I Get Married and its sequel, directed by the prolific Tyler Perry, showed couples mid-marriage, facing a whole range of issues rarely touched by other romantic comedies: infidelity, diminished sex drive, infertility, abuse. Chris Rock's I Think I Love My Wife watched a man seriously consider cheating on his wife. These movies are far more complex and interesting than The Proposal or 27 Dresses or Friends With Benefits, but they rarely get acknowledged in conversations about the state of the romantic comedy, probably because they're consigned to niche status as "black movies." Like Think Like a Man, these films have black directors and primarily black casts and are marketed toward black audiences.
This is probably the most significant way Think Like a Man could be revolutionary. The film was the most popular movie in the country this past weekend, making $33 million and averaging an impressive $16,000 per theater. That's a far better opening than I Think I Love My Wife ($5.6 million) or either of the Why Did I Get Married movies ($21 million and $29 million)—or any Tyler Perry movie, for that matter, besides Madea Goes to Jail. There's hope, then, that Think Like a Man's subtle reworking of the romantic comedy will have an impact—that its success will make directors and writers of all races take notice.