Say Hello, Harvey…

[23 April 2012]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Tyler Perry should be worried. While working almost exclusively in the kind of merry melodrama driven by religious values and beliefs, he’s more or less owned the urban market. While films like 35 and Holding and First Sunday tried to steal away some of his Madea made thunder, his undying devotion to the underserved African America demo has provided a princely sum, both financially and power-wise. But now, with nearly $33 million in box office receipts, Steve Harvey’s Think Like a Man has made major inroads into entertainment avenues that few thought viable. With lagging returns for ridiculous tripe such as Lottery Ticket and Who’s Your Caddy? still fresh in the collective memory of the major movie studios, such success will not go unnoticed. What it will mean, however, is another question entirely.

Harvey, who first exploded onto the scene as part of the amazing Original Kings of Comedy, has carved out a unique career in an arena often highlighted by flash in the pan personalities. Long before he teamed up with the late Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer, and DL Hughley, he was honing his craft at clubs around the country. His popularity led to a stint as the host of the syndicated hit Showtime at the Apollo and the hugely successful Steve Harvey Show on the fledgling WB Network. By the time Spike Lee decided to document the powerhouse tour of the four stellar stand-ups, he was already branching out. Between music, a clothing line, and his own morning radio show, he became a veiled version of Howard Stern - a true ruler of all media.

But it was the publication of his smash hit self-help book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, which really pushed Harvey over the top. He became an accidental guru, giving minority women insight into their relationships that few outside the majority ever considered. While not without its controversies (Harvey believes that women should never date men who are atheists - apparently, they lack a “moral barometer”) and slick satiric contrivances, the tome became a bestseller, and for some, the Bible on being black in post-millennial America. So naturally, someone would try and tap into that undeniable popularity. Following in the footsteps of such failed attempted adaptations as Eat, Pray, Love, He’s Just Not That Into You, and What’s Your Number? , there were no guarantees.

So $33million must seem like vindication indeed. Now, there will be those who bemoan the lack of legitimate alternatives for the African American community and consider the success nothing more than needy people paying to see something - anything! - which speaks to their situation. Others will point to the relative lack of competition (sorry - Nicolas Sparks - you’re so 2004) in the marketplace. But such a number implies crossover appeal, something Perry can’t even proclaim. Indeed, the biggest struggle for the established brand is real mainstream acceptance. Even with Madea front and center, Perry can’t pass a certain box office benchmark. Think Like a Man suggests that Harvey, and those who interpret him, have the answer.

Unfortunately, the main difference in the lack of a Christian underpinning. Apparently, even in the more tolerant times we tend to live in, people can’t cotton to overt religion. They just don’t like laughter (or heartache) mixed with a message of faith. Before he was a superstar, Perry traveled the revival circuit, playing almost exclusively to church groups, preaching to the choir, so to speak. When he finally hit movie theaters, it was these established fans that rallied to his side. Since then, Perry’s reach has been truncated. He has yet to have an outright smash, though his movies always make their money back. In fact, one could argue that his TV enterprises (House of Payne, Meet the Browns) have been much more meaningful in regards to universal acceptance.

Harvey, on the other hand, is seemingly playing in the same scatological arena as current comedy minds such as Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips. His efforts don’t contain gratuitous gross out gags or purposeful puerile content, but he’s not afraid of finding a happy medium between good and bad taste. Granted, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man was more advice than humor, but nothing Harvey does can’t be completely devoid of levity. Similarly, audiences expecting the cinematic translation of his thoughts had to know they were getting something funny. The trailers sold the sentiment hard, while shying away from the last act’s two handkerchief payoff. 

This doesn’t really explain the overall success, however. Indeed, when thinking about a title like Madea’s Big Happy Family, one can easily measure both movies laugh for laugh. No, where Harvey (or director Tim Story and screenwriters Keith Merryman and David A. Newman, in reality) comes from is a place of personality. Perry, for all his publicity and marketing, remains along the fringes. He is found, accepted, or rejected. He’s never ‘there’ and then dealt with. On the other hand, Think Like a Man surrounds itself in popular faces (Kevin Hart, Regina Hall, Meagan Good, Harvey himself) as well as populist approaches. With exceptions here and there, ethnicity is not a barrier. After all, this is a movie where one couple obsesses over sci-fi and comic book geek givens, while another is more focused on money than emotion. Perry would definitely scoff at the former.

On the other hand, the talented tycoon does bury his work in a world of known urban givens. Drugs, disenfranchisement, and prejudice are always simmering beneath the surface, horrors he knows will stir certain set feelings inside his viewer. The balance between old school principles and new world wants also come into play, borderline offensive stereotypes fed and then fended off with a grand God gesture. Additionally, musical choices tend to avoid rap and current hip-hop favorites for gospel and mid ‘70s soul. By contrast, Think Like a Man touts out the scandal ridden singer Chris Brown to play a hunky himbo who represents the worst/best in sex stud servitude (his presence didn’t go unnoticed by the many ladies in the preview audience).

In some ways, Harvey and Perry are working different sides of the street. One believes in the power of his women are saints/men are pigs/God is good message. The other blames them both and avoids the latter. One fosters acknowledged archetypes in order to show some wisdom, while the other examines the givens before complying/critiquing them. In fairness, Perry has been playing at this game for over a decade. Harvey, while longer in the business, is new to his place as an ethnic entrepreneur. Though $33 million is nothing to sneeze at, it’s also not endemic of what the joking jack-of-many-trades can do. Time will tell how Harvey will play within the designs of the demographic. Perry is already established, though he still should fret a bit.

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