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Saturday
May052012

The Avengers (2012)

Glamnesiacs Assemble!

I'm writing this from a small island at the remotest edge of comic-book fandom, overlooking a chasm of credibility into which I may be swept at any moment.

It's cold out here, and very dark, but this really is the safest place for me right now. You see, I'm one of six people on the planet who thinks The Avengers is a truly terrible movie. The latest box office projections have this thing racing towards a $200 million opening weekend--which implies incredible audience enthusiasm and repeat business.* Believe me, I understand how many of you have no interest in what I'm about to say.

The best place to start, I guess, is by clarifying the term "terrible". Had The Avengers been released in a vacuum--that is to say, in the absence of its five predecessors, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America--I would probably have classified it as being okay. But given the fact that this is essentially the sixth sequel in a mega-budget franchise, "okay" is simply not acceptable.

Familiarity, especially in comic-book adaptations and summer-blockbusters, breeds contempt. And I felt like I'd literally sat through The Avengers five times before. The plot is identical to the movies that came before it--half of them even centered on the same blue cosmic cube that all the world's bad-guys want to capture in order to gain unlimited power.** In the last four years, I've spent upwards of eleven hours watching noble lab rats attain power, lose power, re-gain power, and pummel evil to within an inch of its mutated/cybernetically enhanced/fascist life. Rinse. Repeat.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

In truth, I was both looking forward to and dreading The Avengers (which, in case you don't know, is a super-team made up of the previously mentioned heroes, plus a pair of highly trained spies and a mega-assassin). I figured that if anyone could come up with something interesting for these characters to do, it would be writer/director Joss Whedon. Sadly, that's not the case.

Anyone familiar with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly will instantly recognize the geek auteur's trademark wit here, which is one prong of a huge, two-part problem. Every wink, cute cutaway, and snarky aside is telegraphed by a stale formula that is to writing what Tim Burton's movies are to visuals: When a mousy character picks up a large gun to fend off a villain, for example, he remarks, "I have no idea what this does." Following the inevitable explosion of power that knocks said villain through a wall, the mousy character says, in "hilariously" casual fashion, "So that's what that does."

By minute ten, I felt like I'd been gifted with mutant psychic powers--so strong was my ability to map out not only the entire plot, but also every exchange between every character.

I'm not sure I can blame Whedon for this entirely, though, as The Avengers' second big problem, story-wise, seems to be a series of corporate dictates from Marvel Films. Everything about the movie feels calibrated to maximize franchise options, instead of allowing for unpredictable character and story moments. Were I to complain that I never felt for a second that any of these characters was in genuine danger of not coming back for Avengers 2 or a sequel in one of their own franchises, your reaction would naturally be, "Of course they're not gonna kill Captain America (/Hulk/Thor/Iron Man)." That acceptance of formulaic filmmaking is exactly the problem--unless you're a studio executive or the kind of repeat-viewing zombie with disposable income where brain cells should be.

If no one has any doubt that Iron Man is going to come back from his suicide mission to the alien control ship, then all the swelling, orchestral arrangements; beatific closeups of a scared Robert Downey Jr's face; and overly dramatic hero-shots of his character's battered armor mean absolutely nothing. They're part of a lie that the audience tells itself as a backdoor entry to genuine engagement. It's the cinematic equivalent of "Arms of the Angel" playing over those animal-rescue commercials.

I call this alarmingly huge group of special-effects suckers "glamnesiacs". They are the bane of my critical existence, and my greatest envy as a moviegoer. I sincerely wish I had the ability to forget ninety-nine percent of the so-called "popcorn flicks" I've seen, as these cretins seem to do every time they buy a ticket. To them, talking about Iron Man's near-sacrifice constitutes major spoilerage. But for me, a sentient human being who only has to reach as far back as last year's Transformers: Dark of the Moon to find a similar climax, it's just common sense.

In truth, Dark of the Moon is only a quarter of the cliché package that comprises The Avengers' overlong, ho-hum third act. When Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the god of mischief, unleashes an alien army upon the Earth, they pop in through a portal above Manhattan. Out come legions of armed, mechanical warriors who blast everything in sight and topple buildings with their shiny, multi-jointed tails (do you hear the bells ringing yet? No? keep reading). 

Just as all hope seems lost, Iron Man makes the brave decision to fly directly into a blue beam of light to save the planet from extinction (*cough* Independence Day *cough*). He winds up in outer space, headed towards the aliens' mother ship--which he destroys by hurtling a missile at it (*cough* at least it wasn't a computer virus *cough*). Out of power and oxygen, he falls back to Earth, just as the remote-controlled alien robots collapse in their tracks (*cough* *hack* *wheeze* The Phantom Menace *cough* Dear God! *vomit* Really? *cough* The Phantom Menace? *faint*).

Worst of all, this epic, planet-endangering invasion appears to have been contained to a two-block radius: after the smoke clears, we fly into a pristine, September-tenth-style Manhattan that instantly calls to mind Steven Spielberg's bogus, post-apocalyptic Boston at the end of War of the Worlds.

By the way, these are only spoilers if you've never been to the movies.

At this point, you may wonder if I liked anything about The Avengers. Well, there are probably five minutes of fun that I could cobble together out of the film's nearly two-and-a-half hours--and that's stealing forty-five seconds here, a look there, and half a joke there; nothing that would constitute a scene that I liked.

Mark Ruffalo nails Bruce Banner in a way that Eric Bana and Edward Norton failed to do in previous attempts to launch a Hulk film franchise. His calm, slyly funny demeanor is a breath of personality in a main cast packed mostly with duds.

The Hulk himself is a problem, though. The build-up to his first appearance is marvelous. We're told that the monster is a physical manifestation of unfocused rage. Indeed, he is, emerging to take on S.H.I.E.L.D. agents (the good guys) as if they were the threat. Unpredictability is thrown out the window after this scene, though--replaced with a Hulk that conveniently works with his teammates and occasionally reverts back to surliness whenever Whedon needs a bit of comedic relief.

Chris Evans also really surprised me as Captain America. After suffering through his bore of a stand-alone film last summer, I was ready to see Cap in the modern age. His is a classic man-out-of-time story, and Evans provides just the right mix of Boy Scout and lost puppy to keep cynics like me charmed and interested. That said, he was part of one of the grossest scenes I've had to avert my eyes from in quite awhile:

When Loki pulls a Zod, and makes a crowd of people kneel before him, an elderly man stands up and proves Godwin's Law on screen. For those unfamiliar with this meme, Godwin's Law asserts that any online argument will eventually devolve into Hitler comparisons. For many, a guy in a weird uniform towering above innocents may evoke Adolf Hitler, but this tired, "I've seen your kind before" nonsense is trite, and has to stop.

Speaking of gods, as the legendary thunder deity, Chris Hemsworth's Thor makes an awfully cute understudy for a dinner-theatre Shakespeare company. I'm also completely over Downey Jr's portrayal of Tony Stark. Four years ago, the wisecracking playboy/hero was fun and unpredictable. Now his whole performance ranges from self-involved snark to disgustingly-self-involved snark--his every word could be scribbled on a box of Dots before the actor shows up on screen, with ninety-nine percent accuracy. And for being "The Spy", as Stark calls him, S.H.I.E.L.D head Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) sure spends a lot of time glowering at computer screens and pointing sternly. All the potential that Marvel fanatics felt when he popped up at the end of the first Iron Man movie has been squandered. Any bets as to when general audiences will figure this out and demand that he stop coasting on credit?

At issue is the fact that these protagonists are no longer being written as characters. They're archetypes in Halloween costumes; any bit of humanity that accidentally comes across is either purely accidental, or attributable to actors trying to prove themselves in a cast full of moneyed, swinging dicks. Conspicuously absent from this Marvel film is any civilian character not directly connected to the central plot. Aside from Old Man Holocaust and a waitress that I'm sure is supposed to be somebody from the comics (Swallow your chum, fanboys! Swallow it!), there's not one person in the movie who isn't part of the military, associated with the military, or puppets of the military. It's like watching How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying on the Death Star.

In the movies that led up to this one, the heroes had one or two regular people to ground them to the human race--to remind them that they weren't so special as to be apart from everyone else on the planet. The Avengers does away with that nonsense, in an uncharacteristic and, frankly, disappointing move on the part of the traditionally humanistic Whedon. Now, average citizens are merely those things that have to be drawn around in the compositing stage to squeeze in the explosions and flying, metal monsters.

There's no point in telling you to avoid seeing The Avengers in the theatre at all costs. Most of you have checked it out already, I'll bet. And the rest, if you're inclined to see such movies at all, are likely more curious than ever to find out how wrong I really am. There's also the sub-sub-set of fans who somehow feel blessed that this type of movie ever got made in the first place, and that it's a geek's duty to support it.

Let me take a moment to say that these people are full of shit. It's not like The Avengers sprang from nothing. It's a continuation of a franchise whose every entry has made more money than the last, and whose star-power and lack of stakes guarantee another half-dozen spin-offs as gaudy and bland as this one. That's not to say I've given up on superhero epics, but there's enough evidence bursting out of this movie to suggest that superhero epics have given up on themselves.

Not that anyone cares: I'm sure the midnight screenings of Avengers 4 are already sold out.

*As well as the ticket-price-inflating rental charge for 3D glasses, but we'll let the numbers-crunchers continue to believe they're fooling us with this "secret".

**The exception is the first Iron Man, which stands out mostly because it was new and full of whimsical exploration.

Friday
May042012

It's Alive (1974)

No Child of Mine

I may have brought this up before, but it's true what they say: becoming a parent changes your perspective on things.

Now, allow me to address the two percent of you still reading this.

It's hard for me to say whether or not It's Alive is a good film. My love for it shines through the rosy prism of fatherhood and may have no basis in objective reality--if such a thing exists. To modern audiences and/or viewers who don't yet have families, it may play like a cheesy, made-for-70s-TV movie, where the main draw is ridiculing disco-era fashion, characters smoking in hospitals, and a monster who could have been scraped off the floor of a Target seasonal-goods aisle on November first.*

But with a different set of eyes, one can get great, irony-free pleasure out of writer/director Larry Cohen's mutant-killer-baby picture. In fact, the only thing keeping this from being a "legit" drama are brief cut-aways to the monster; had we never seen it, It's Alive would have been a pretty serious, demented portrait of a once happily married couple tearing apart at the seams.

The movie opens with the Davises, Frank (John Ryan) and a very pregnant Lenore (Sharon Farrell), waking up in the middle of the night to go to the hospital. They drop off their son, Chris (Daniel Holzman), with a friend and giddily promise to return soon with a brand-new sibling. What follows is a touching and surprisingly authentic portrait of a middle-aged couple in love. They joke with each other, comfort each other, and await their child's arrival with a mix of joy and dread that can only be captured, filtered, and translated by someone who's gone through it.

The good times fizzle as Frank is pulled away from the waiting room by a commotion down the hall. He busts into the birthing room to find everyone dead except Lenore, their throats slashed and limbs severed by a vicious thing that has left its mark and vanished. From here, It's Alive becomes part police procedural, part marriage-on-the-brink movie. The media latch on to the story right away, costing Frank his job as a PR rep, and sending him into a rage: he subconsciously channels his embarrassment at having fathered a monster, his empathy for Lenore, and his frustration at no longer being able to provide for his (human) family into a fierce determination to hunt and kill his newborn son.

As with many of Cohen's films, It's Alive is a Message Movie that wears the skin of horror to get people in the door. More so than George Romero, who took up the social-relevance mantle only after it was foisted upon him by fans, Cohen constructs his theses deliberately. Whether masking corporate greed as killer ice cream in The Stuff, or taking on our isolating culture of connectivity in Phone Booth, he always leaves the audience with two villains to fear.

This film covers a few bases, all of them related to child-rearing. We learn that the Davises considered having an abortion when Lenore found out she was pregnant. And while we never find out exactly what caused Junior to be born with oversized talons and an insatiable urge to rip out throats with its vampire teeth, a pharmaceutical representative who works at the hospital seems very keen on keeping the mother's use of his company's birth control pills on the down-low.

It's Alive doesn't take a stance on these issues so much as present them as ideas for the audience to consider--or not consider. The corrupt doctor working with the pharma rep doesn't fare too well, so I guess that serves as commentary. But like Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, the answers to really big questions are scattered about the story in ways that are meant to be picked up on by those willing to look. Take the high-falutin' social issues out of play, and you're still left with a smart, well-acted human drama.

That's not to say the movie holds up in this been-there-done-that age. It's too dark in a lot of places and the editing is pretty atrocious, particularly in the infant-attack scenes. I'll give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and assume this was done to preserve the movie's PG rating. But there's definitely a weird time-capsule quality to It's Alive that nearly obscures the really cool themes Cohen has to offer. That's not his fault, of course. I blame the 70s.

Speaking of which, the strangest part of It's Alive is its rating. It's hard to imagine a family-targeted movie coming out now that features gaping wounds and a milkman whose body is so badly mangled that blood mixes with dairy and gushes out the back of his truck.

It's also hard to imagine a movie like this even getting made today. The closest thing I can think of is Splice, a heady sliver of sci-fi that no one went to see. Where that film dealt with science and morality, this movie concerns itself with average people facing the grander questions of the universe in the form of bastardized science--while running from a bat-faced monster-baby. Like the Davis's unfortunate spawn, It's Alive feels out of place in this world--misunderstood by the people who should love it most.

But most imperfect children are perfect to their parents, and I've adopted It's Alive as my own. Just don't tell my wife and kid.

*It's hard to be hard on the creature effects, though, seeing as Oscar-winning artist Rick Baker was only twenty-four years old when he sculpted the thing.

Monday
Apr302012

The Raven (2012)

Sherlock Poems

I had zero interest in seeing The Raven after watching its trailer. Judging by the film's abysmal seventh-place opening weekend, neither did America. But after a quick bit of Facebook polling, I slunk off to the theatre, happy to not be saddled with another two-hour Judd Apatow-produced romantic comedy, but deeply concerned about the weirdly cast Sherlock Holmes knock-off that awaited me.

Once again, shame on me for passing judgment! While not consistently suspenseful, scary, or even classically good, this is one of the most compelling movies I've seen this year.*

There's no point in commenting on the plot, since everything except the killer's identity is revealed in the previews. But for those of you who wouldn't know The Raven from Raven-Symoné, here's the run-down:

In the last weeks of Edgar Allen Poe's (John Cusack) life, he becomes a suspect in a series of grisly Baltimore murders inspired by his greatest works. The local head detective, Fields (Luke Evans, effectively channeling Michael Shannon in Boardwalk Empire) recruits the drunken, disgraced poet to help him unravel clues and, eventually, rescue Poe's would-be high-society girlfriend, Emily (Alice Eve). Complicating their investigation is Emily's disapproving father (Brendan Gleeson) and an ever-dwindling list of possible killers.

Yes, this is basically Se7en, gussied up in the big-budget slum-chic of Guy Ritchie's blockbuster Holmes adaptation. But the melancholy is nicely tempered with humor and bizarre tweaks to genre convention, which make the film a ride instead of just a procedural. I was unprepared for Cusack's take on Poe, having been spoiled by Jeffrey Combs' incredible, dour (but not incredibly dour) performance in the Masters of Horror episode, "The Black Cat". Poe 2.0 is a wacky cross between Hunter S. Thompson and Lloyd Dobler, screaming at local bar patrons for having no idea who he is one minute, and then melting into the embrace of the girl he believes is doomed for loving him the next.

There's a profound lack of twisted, psychedelic imagery at play here, which I appreciate to no end. It would have been easy for director James McTeigue and writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare to go the Tim Burton route, filling The Raven with all sorts of dark, animated peeks into Poe's mind. But the filmmakers go gothic without going GothicTM , opening up the standard, bloody whodunnit to a world of grim, comic possibilities and the kind of depraved views on love that only manic depressives can truly understand.

And, as bromances go, Fields and Poe soar past buddy-cop formula into grossly unexplored territory. Both men are on different planets, and though they kind of come to understand one another, the film doesn't end with a phony, "let's go get 'em" climax and manly, pre-beers hug. No, the writers make them distinct figures with different approaches to life that, ultimately, serve a greater purpose without fully gelling. Sorry to be so cryptic, but the less you know about the movie's resolution the better.

And what a resolution! The Raven's villain is a casualty of Roger Ebert's Law of the Economy of Characters--meaning that, if you care to do the math, the process of cast member deduction will eventually lead you to the hidden killer. The filmmakers know this, as do we, and they make the reveal deceptively spectacular to compensate. The scene in which Poe must confront a madman he helped create reminded me of the Joker's interrogation scene from The Dark Knight--minus the weird, Cagney-esque cackling. Some have expressed dissatisfaction with the villain's motive, but the simplicity and pathetic ridiculousness behind the crimes make their execution more awe-inspiring and more chilling. It also lends realism to a story that, thanks to decades of similarly constructed horror movies, has become too far-fetched and predictable.

I'd be remiss in not giving a brief shout-out to Eve as the damsel in distress. While her early scenes are nothing to write home about, she plays a desperate woman in captivity very well. She's sympathetic without being a shrieking pity object and bold without becoming Ellen Ripley. By film's end, I began to wonder if her time trapped under a floorboard had imbued her with a touch of madness.

I keep going back to 2009's Sherlock Holmes, a movie I loathed. Though McTeigue is working with similar material here, I much prefer his take. Instead of hitting the audience over the head with (too much) fancy camera moves and the manufactured, quirky pseudo-brilliance of a lead actor on auto pilot, The Raven takes great pains to give us a well-rounded, literate hero whose internal struggles are even more rousing than the murder mystery that has so rudely inconvenienced him. The film may leave average horror fans weak and weary, but I left the theatre elated and eager to write.

*Does anyone else smell a blu-ray blurb?

**SPOILER!

Friday
Apr272012

Everything Must Go (2011)

Beauté Américaine

It's fitting that Everything Must Go is about an impromptu yard sale: last spring, while picking through Hollywood's gaudy, sloppily displayed wares, I passed right by a real gem of a movie that might have made the entire trip worthwhile. If you've never heard of this film, you're not alone. Writer/director Dan Rush's debut (based on a Raymond Carver short story) came and went with so little fanfare that I'd forgotten it existed until Netflix updated my Instant Queue the other day.

Having now seen the movie, I'm hardly surprised that it didn't set the world on fire. As depressed businessman Nick Halsey, Will Ferrell tosses aside his trademark crutches of uncomfortable male nudity, clueless pratfalling, and "hilarious" infantile rage to walk like an honest-to-God man. There are hints of classic Ferrell-isms, but each is underscored by the fact that the main character's wobbly disposition and surliness stem from a lifetime of mediocrity and alcohol abuse.

Nick is rightfully bummed out: on the same day he's downsized for one too drunken sales trips, his wife locks him out of the house; he comes home to find everything he owns strewn about the lawn. His fed-up spouse also changed the locks and security codes, leaving him only the comforts of his leather recliner and the last case of beer he can afford (she froze the joint bank account, too).

His detective friend and AA sponsor, Frank (Michael Pena), drops by, following police reports of a crazy person living in their front yard. He gives Nick five days to relocate, citing a law that allows citizens to hold extended yard sales. The next day, Nick hires a local latchkey kid named Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace) to help him make signs and keep an eye on his stuff. He also befriends new neighbor and pregnant mother, Samantha (Rebecca Hall), whose working-stiff husband keeps getting delayed in making the big move from New York to Arizona.

The movie is front-loaded with shtick, as Nick rebels against the smug, young executive who fired him and fends off strangers who actually want to buy his junk. But the days pass quickly, and Nick gradually realizes that no one is going to save him from homelessness and loneliness. Even a failed attempt to reconnect with a high-school acquaintance (Laura Dern) feels like the last stages of denial before entering spiritual rehab. Ineed, we get a lot of anger, bargaining, depression, and, ultimately, acceptance.

But the beauty of Everything Must Go is the fact that Rush and company live up to the promise of its title, and nothing more. You won't see Nick pull his life together in a heroic, darkest-hour turn-around. By film's end, everything is left up in the air; we leave this chapter of a greater journey behind, hopeful that the characters have found just what they need to make a go of things. But hope is not a guarantee, and there's no telling if the next great catastrophe will send Nick tumbling forever into the abyss.

Will Ferrell has never been better. A lot was made of George Clooney's powerful turn in The Descendants last year; while I was quite impressed, Ferrell's the guy who deserves the 2011 "I Didn't Know He Had It In Him" award. He creates a rich character that is at times lovable, at times loathsome, and always compelling. Even though it feels like I've seen the moment where Nick projects sad home movies onto his garage door a million times, Ferrell sells the scene in a way that makes it fresh and devastating.

It helps that the supporting cast is terrific. Hall is great as a sympathetic-ear-turned-sparring-partner, and Wallace adds a new dimension to the awkward, smart-ass neighbor kid. Dern also brims with believability as the girl Nick probably should have ended up with; her story about being an aspiring actress who once worked with Brad Pitt in a Japanese liquor spot is one of the most naturalistic performances I've seen in awhile.

The film's only weak spot is the end result of Nick's evolving relationship with Frank. There's a nice twist that more savvy viewers will likely scold me for not having predicted. But after the big revelation, the movie takes a brief, unwelcome detour into deranged-cop territory. Frankly, it plays like Rush's attempt to keep traditional moviegoers awake in the home stretch.

At its core, Everything Must Go is a modern riff on Sam Mendes' American Beauty. But instead of cluttering the narrative with soapbox sermons about suburbia, latent homosexuality, teen promiscuity, and God knows what else, Rush sticks with a few key ideas and explores them well. Nick Halsey is a lost drunk who spent most of his life defined by his job and the things he bought with his salary. In the absence of that, he's forced to look at a disorganized soul laid bare and shrug off the baggage that's kept him from moving forward. Though it's a bit rough around the edges, this is a sweet, eye-opening little movie that would look great in your home.

Tuesday
Apr242012

Think Like a Man (2012)

Player Daters

Things are about to get dicey, kids, so strap in. I may not be qualified to review Think Like a Man. I saw it last weekend, but can't help thinking that my perception was tainted by the audience's reaction--or, more to the point, their behavior.

Though every carefully honed instinct of my liberal-progressive upbringing is working overtime to keep my fingers from typing this, it's with a heavy heart that I must share a horrifying/exhilarating moviegoing experience with a predominantly black audience. You've heard the jokes; you know the stereotypes; you may share the sentiments or rebel against them wholeheartedly. But, Goddammit, sometimes cartoons are real.

Case in point: the two women sitting next to me with the oversized purses and over-oversized, shriek-laughs. Not only did both of them verbally agree with every point Steve Harvey made as the film's unofficial narrator ("Tha's right!" and "MmmmmMMMMMMM-hmm!"), but I swear on my black father's ashes* that when Morris Chestnut appeared on screen, they nearly began having sex with each other. I tried not to look directly at them, but between the screaming, violent floor-stomping, and swatches of faux-alligator purse that kept swinging into my periph, it was hard not to be concerned.

I understand that suggesting movie theatres have special sections for different kinds of audiences is, um, tricky, to say the least. But this isn't about race, it's about decorum. Some might say it's about culture. If that's true, the culture sucks--or at least part of it does.

Here's the thing, though: the crazy people surrounding me and my wife actually made the movie weirdly enjoyable. Whenever one of the film's eight billion storylines began to flag, someone down in front would inevitably holler or whoop, setting off a chain reaction of laughter that screenwriters Keith Merryman and David A. Newman had absolutely no hand in. In fairness, the film does provide a surprising amount of sharp, chuckle-worthy material, mostly delivered by comic superstar Kevin Hart. But because this is a mainstream romantic comedy, there's plenty of dead air, which we must wade through as the characters figure out what we knew by looking at the poster. In such cases, a well-timed "MmmmmMMMMM-hmm" is just what the doctor ordered.

Think Like a Man is a hell of an idea for a movie: Comedian/author Harvey wrote a book a couple years back called Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, which claimed to lay out all the weird head games and insecurities that women must navigate and conquer in order to land an ideal boyfriend/husband. The film acts as both a meta adaptation and marketing tool,** taking place in a world where jilted women (and flamboyant gay men in pink, popped-collar polos, naturally) glom onto the new self-help bible du jour. And because everyone knows that guys prefer sports bars to book stores, the film's core group of six cookie-cutter American douchebags have no idea that their methods have come under attack.

What sets this rom-com apart from the legions of others is its uniformly strong cast and a host of borderline self-aware zingers, delivered without the bubbly in-love-with-being-in-love air-headedness of many a Drew Barrymore flick. Despite playing the beleaguered single mom and the highly successful ice queen, respectively, Regina Hall and Taraji P. Henson give their characters life instead of just breath. Hall breaks away from the Scary Movie franchise's silliness, and Henson adds vulnerability and sparkle to a role that's just dead on the page. Director Tim Story's real strength--aside from helping define his movie's look with the same buttery glow as every Meg Ryan movie from the 90s is giving all of his performers the chance to step out of their comfort zone--or at least the zones in which we've grown comfortable watching them.

As an anime-loving, stoned slacker, Jerry Ferrara comes into his own. Though he played a glorified gopher on Entourage for several seasons, he steps confidently into a more out-front role. And I especially liked seeing Romany Malco set his comedic chops (largely) aside to wear the skin of a smooth player who gets knocked off his own pedestal by love (by the lovely and surprising Meagan Good). I guess the only non-surprise in the cast is Hart, whose character is in the process of getting divorced; his gremlin-on-meth energy and massive inferiority complex provide the film's biggest laughs, and not at the expense of brain cells--his jokes are of the smart-stupid variety, and don't rely too heavily on obnoxious-pouty-black-man shtick.

I should correct something I typed a moment ago: the cast isn't uniformly great, after all. Two stand-outs take a sledge hammer to the film's entertainment value and credibility with their unique brands of awfulness. Gary Owen plays the married, suburban, white guy with all the awkward delivery of an athelete-turned-actor. He stinks up every scene he wanders in to with a charm-free performance that screams "milk moustache".

Then there's the tattooed, girlfriend-beating, walking anger problem known as Chris Brown. Fortunately, his screen time playing a lying, manipulative scum-bag is brief. I can't impartially evaluate his performance because each time he popped up, my mind replaced his head with a blown-up photo of Rihanna's bruised and battered face. She may have forgiven him, but I can't. Ever.

Do you understand why this review is so hard to write? I've spent half of it marveling at the bizarre audience surrounding me, and half praising actors who play against type. What if you decide to skip the theatre and rent this in a few months? What if you have no idea what Entourage is? Or have never considered watching Scary Movie? Chances are, you'd be left with a cool premise that devolves into rom-com mediocrity, made slightly better by strong performances.

So, I guess I can recommend Think Like a Man and not recommend it. If you're going to give the movie a chance, though, you simply must catch this in a cineplex--preferably on a Saturday night. Just bring ear plugs, some plastic sheeting, and a set of re-calibrated expectations as to what constitutes appropriate public behavior.

*Not his black ashes, but the ashes from his black body--which are in my basement...somewhere.

**Harvey's insights, though not necessarily original or true for all men, are interesting and pretty funny.