Tedium for Two 

Two Can Play That Game

In the early '90s, during a particularly dark time for the pro-wrestling business, perennial jester and one-time Andy Kaufman accomplice Jerry "the King" Lawler proclaimed that he was going to do something that had never been done before: call play-by-play commentary on his own match. Entering the ring armed with a microphone, he proceeded to pummel his no-name opponent while announcing which moves he was doing and how great they were. While the crowd booed Lawler's show of arrogance, his opponent got the upper hand, and "the King" dropped the mike and stooped to dastardly illegal tactics to pull off a cheap win.

As a device to generate negative heat, the stunt worked fabulously. But movies, generally speaking, are in search of positive buzz, which is why similar tactics fail in cinematic terms when utilized in the new romantic comedy Two Can Play That Game. Following a brief montage of helicopter shots of downtown LA (seemingly the same opening sequence as in The Brothers, with which this film shares stars Morris Chestnut and Gabrielle Union), Two Can Play settles into the nice cozy office of Shanté Smith (Vivica A. Fox), who greets the camera with an "Oh, hey!" Uh-oh. Talking to the camera -- not good (unless you're adapting a well-written novel, like Fight Club or High Fidelity, which this ain't). And she doesn't stop. Ever. As the story's protagonist, Shanté tells us what she's going to do, does it, then tells us why she did it, usually in self-congratulatory tones. And yes, the ending is just as much of a cheat as Lawler grabbing his opponent's tights (though the latter at least was scripted to be deliberately bad).

Apparently hoping to be the feminine equivalent of an ensemble comedy-drama like The Brothers (call it The Sisters or, if you want to be hip, misspell it creatively -- The Cystaz, perhaps?), Two Can Play is more like a staged one-woman solo performance from Fox, but without the benefit of the heartfelt emotion and wit that such shows at their best require. It's hard to fault the actress too much for this -- the only requirements for the role are sexiness and the ability to be articulate, both of which she has in abundance. It's the script, from first-time director Mark Brown (scribe of the extraordinarily similar Bill Bellamy comedy How to Be a Player) that lets her down, forcing her, in effect, to be a newscaster when she'd clearly rather be acting.

The gist of the film is that Shanté is secure about her man, Keith (Chestnut), despite her opinion that men in general are dogs, especially when the weather gets warm and women start showing their bodies. Meanwhile, her friends are less secure: Karen (Wendy Raquel Robinson) cleans up a scuzzy mechanic (singer Bobby Brown, in the film's most amusing role), only to lose him when he realizes he now looks good; Tracye (Tamala Jones) is stuck with a cheating bum (Donré T. Whitfield), whom she entraps by hiding a pair of oversized underwear at his house and waiting for his pathetic attempt to cover up and thereby "prove" his guilt; and Diedre (Mo'Nique), who is described as "ghetto fabulous" (which apparently means obese and tacky), simply likes to beat people up and is surprised to find that her man (Ian "Blaze" Kelly) is fat, lazy, and unmotivated.

Shanté's complacency is quickly undermined when Keith tells her he's going to be working late (warning sign No. 1 of a cheat, she tells us), and is discovered at a bar with another woman. What she doesn't know, and we do, is that nothing has actually happened between Keith and this interloper. But Shanté promptly breaks up with Keith, as part of a prescribed ten-day cycle that will supposedly ensure that he comes back to her with all appropriate contrition. Shanté then proceeds to walk us through the cycle, step by painful step, for the rest of the movie.

Serving as a counterpoint are the interactions of Keith and his best friend, Tony (perennial workhorse Anthony Anderson, in his fourth major role of the year so far), who gives him advice on how to handle the situation. The one innovative touch that the movie exhibits is that it doesn't play Tony's advice off as misogynist claptrap. Tony knows the rules of the game Shanté's playing, and has some ideas as to how to counter them; writer-director Brown seems to have used Sun Tzu as an inspiration here, though it's notable that Tony is quite obviously girlfriend-less, suggesting perhaps that submission is the best policy for the male.

Too bad very few of these high jinks are actually funny -- the outtakes at the end of the film suggest a more relaxed ensemble vibe that the film proper is unable to recreate. There are some ideas that could be funny, such as an analogy to the laws of thermodynamics that suggests ways to transfer your frustration onto your estranged partner, but the main problem is that if a narrator is needed to remind us that something is funny, the gag didn't work on its own. And that's all this movie is, a string of would-be jokes that are hammered home by nonstop narration that shouldn't be necessary. Even Anderson, who managed to be entertaining in the Steven Seagal "comeback" vehicle Exit Wounds, and stole the show from Whoopi Goldberg, LL Cool J, and Jada Pinkett in Kingdom Come, is peculiarly flat, while Gabrielle Union, who shows up briefly as a rival for Keith's affections, is treated like so much window dressing (maybe now that she's too old for teen movies, studio execs have no idea what to do with a smart and sexy black woman).

And at heart, the premise of the film is flawed. The appropriate turn of events in a story like this would be for Shanté to realize that rational rules cannot always be applied to love, and that she's been an arrogant and self-righteous control freak. If the protagonist were male, you know he'd get his comeuppance and have to humiliate himself at the end to win back his true love's heart. But Shanté really doesn't have any moment like this, other than some minor second-guessing. Maybe this is what's considered girl power nowadays, and maybe some guys are horny enough to fall for it. Rubbing our noses in it, however, hardly seems like a good plan.

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