Two Can Play That Game

Though the world hardly needs a companion movie to 1997's unwatchable "How to Be a Player," here it is in "Two Can Play That Game." Mark Brown, who wrote the earlier pic about a single man-about-town, returns as writer-director, supplying a bit more style and energy this time.

Shante Smith - Vivica A. Fox Keith Fenton - Morris Chestnut Tony - Anthony Anderson Conny - Gabrielle Union Karen - Wendy Raquel Robinson Trayce - Tamala Jones Diedre - Mo'Nique Bill - Ray Wise Michael - Bobby Brown Dwain - Dondre T. Whitfield

Though the world hardly needs a companion movie to 1997’s unwatchable “How to Be a Player,” here it is in “Two Can Play That Game.” Mark Brown, who wrote the earlier pic about a single man-about-town, returns as writer-director, supplying a bit more style and energy this time. Underneath, though, it is the same unfunny game all over again, only from the woman’s point of view. Few recent movies have conceived their central female character more contemptuously — a fanatic for a lifestyle that appears to have come from the bestselling “The Rules” who is obviously set up for a satiric fall. Pic will lure in its share of curious couples and dates, who then may end up in post-screening spats, which in turn may trigger loquacious word-of-mouth.

Just as comedian Bill Bellamy’s “Player” character spoke directly to the camera about his Casanova-like methods, so cool, composed ad exec Shante (Vivica A. Fox) addresses us about her views on men and how to control them. From the start, with her insulting asides about how the spring equinox inspires male stupidity, Shante isn’t just the classic Unreliable Narrator — she’s the Obnoxious Narrator.

While she provides comfort and aid to her three main friends Karen (Wendy Raquel Robinson), Trayce (Tamala Jones) and Diedre (Mo’Nique), who are all hurting in the love game, Shante assures us that she has her man, super-exec Keith (Morris Chestnut), directly under her thumb, and hot enough for a quickie in his office.

Brown’s brand of predictable comedy is such, though, that this is precisely the point when Shante is assuredly not in control. Perhaps with more of the shadings and unexpected angles of a real woman rather than an R-rated version of a sitcom type, Shante and her crisis with Keith would catch us unawares; but when she and her gal crew spot Keith dancing with another woman in a restaurant club, it’s hard not to be relieved that somebody is giving this dislikable woman a deserving what-for.

As repellent as she is, Shante gets worse: Now, she launches all-out war against Keith, waging nine full days of psychological games and attitude. Under normal circumstances, this would be the time for a caring friend to suggest to Shante that she visit a therapist for help. In this comedy, though, it means hearing her explain her tactics and strategies while watching her not answer Keith’s calls and so on and so on.

For his part, Keith has a coach in co-worker Tony (Anthony Anderson), who seems to understand Shante’s every move even before she makes it and reminds the clueless and rather hopeless Keith that “the CIA ain’t got shit on a woman with a plan.” This could have been a funny pressure valve to relieve viewers of the oppression that is Shante, especially if there had been some perspective on Tony’s genius for assessing wily female tacticians. But while Anderson delivers his usual explosions of witty intensity, he’s still trapped in his perennial sidekick position, this time playing off of other black thesps rather than the all-white casts he’s typically surrounded by.

Nothing in Fox’s paper-thin portrayal distracts from the clear fate for Shante, that her phony game is bound to fail. The movie at least has given her an awesome nemesis (as Brown’s camera perpetually ogles her) in the form of Gabrielle Union as Conny, who is — impossible though it may seem — a few degrees bitchier than Shante. Besides Anderson, Union is the only thesp onscreen who knows that timing is a key weapon in the comedy arsenal, and makes every second count in a project far below her talents.

Chestnut gets by on his impossible good looks and grace, but when he’s asked to show some sweat during Keith’s darkest hours, it’s as fake as a bad pick-up line. Pop star Bobby Brown, as Karen’s wavering b.f., actually tries to pull off a variation in the key of Eddie Murphy with a bit involving rotting buck teeth, but it just comes off as another bad idea.

Production credits are as bland as Brown’s way with the camera, but one visual fetish — generous view of banners, signs and bottles sporting the Miller Genuine Draft label — is product placement at its most extreme.

Two Can Play That Game

Production: A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Screen Gems presentation of a Doug McHenry production in association with C4 Pictures. Produced by McHenry, Mark Brown, Paddy Cullen. Executive producers, Larry Kennar, Robert N. Freid, Scott Wynne. Directed, written by Mark Brown.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color), Alexander Gruszynski; editor, Earl Watson; music, Marcus Miller; music supervisor, Rashad Liston; production designer, Amy Ancona; art director, Chase Harlin; set decorator, Susan J. Emshwiller; costume designer, Debrae Little; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS), C. Darin Knight; sound designer, Jason George; associate producer, Lana Campbell; assistant director, Todd Amateau; casting, Robi Reed-Humes. Reviewed at Sony Studios, Culver City, Aug. 16, 2001. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 90 MIN.

With: Shante Smith - Vivica A. Fox Keith Fenton - Morris Chestnut Tony - Anthony Anderson Conny - Gabrielle Union Karen - Wendy Raquel Robinson Trayce - Tamala Jones Diedre - Mo'Nique Bill - Ray Wise Michael - Bobby Brown Dwain - Dondre T. Whitfield

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