If anything can make you long for the hang-loose 1970s, it's the prospect of looking for love in an era when dating is governed by more regimented thinking than the old Soviet Union. First came The Rules, which said that the best way for women to nab a mate was by refusing to give it up (basically the code of the 1950s). Then came The Game, which said that if women are playing by The Rules, then the only way for men to push past those defenses is to pretend to be even bigger cads than they are (which, according to the theory, secretly flatters women by tapping their desire to tame the male animal). Then came Steve Harvey's Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, which funneled The Rules and The Game into one book by explaining to women all the ways that men are trying to outthink them. Romantics of the world, do your heads hurt yet?
Think Like a Man, an amorous ensemble comedy based on Harvey's 2009 best-seller, follows a dozen mostly African-American men and women as they attempt to navigate the brave new world of love by the book. The movie, which is very sitcom-setup-driven (it's The Best Man meets Valentine's Day), introduces its embattled pairings with titles like ''The Non-Committer vs. The Girl Who Wants the Ring'' and ''The Dreamer vs. The Woman Who Is Her Own Man.'' For a while, the cookie-cutter behavioral tics are funny in an overly broad way, even if the dialogue is basically stand-up patter turned into glib, fast conversation. And the actors make good company. I especially liked Romany Malco as the velvet-smooth player Zeke; Meagan Good as the spiky Mya, who finds it hard to stick to her dating-war codes; and Kevin Hart as the hilariously raging Cedric, who can't stop jabbering about the divorce he only thinks he wants.
Yet Think Like a Man is so busy tracking courtship as if it were a science project that the bite-size love stories lack spontaneity. When the women first get hold of Harvey's book, the manipulations that ensue are fun. When the men read the book and try to out-psych the women, the film should grow ever foxier in its complications but instead it comes down to a bunch of horndogs pretending to be chivalrous, which is repetitive and kind of soggy. That's the downside of staging a romantic comedy by the rules. B-