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"TWO CAN PLAY THAT GAME"
(2001) (Vivica A. Fox, Morris Chestnut) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: After a woman institutes her ten-day plan to get her wandering boyfriend back, she's surprised to find him following the advice of a player, thus setting into motion a comedic battle of the sexes as both parties try to make the other the first to give in.
PLOT:
Shanté Smith (VIVICA A. FOX) is a successful businesswoman who's as adept with men as she is in the world of advertising. Accordingly, she always dispensing advice to her trio of friends, Diedre (MO'NIQUE), Karen (WENDY RAQUEL ROBINSON), and Tracye (TAMALA JONES), about what they need to do to keep their men on the straight and narrow. She should know - after all, her boyfriend, Keith Fenton (MORRIS CHESTNUT), a successful lawyer, has never strayed.

Or has he? When Shanté and her friends catch him dancing with a coworker at a club after stating he had to work late, the resourceful woman immediately institutes her ten-day plan to get him back on course. Whether it's not taking his calls or acting like nothing happened, Shanté has everything in line to manipulate him into crawling back to her.

For a while, it works, but little does she know that Keith has a coach in his corner, and that's coworker Tony (ANTHONY ANDERSON), a self-described player who states he knows how to manipulate Shanté back. As the days wear on and their battle of wills escalates, Shanté does what she can to make Keith come running back to her, but must not only contend with Tony's tactics, but also rival Conny Spalding (GABRIELLE UNION) who's set her sights on Keith.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
In one of the many memorable scenes from the Vietnam film, "Apocalypse Now," the protagonist (Martin Sheen) arrives on the shores of a battle where a documentary filmmaker (the real film's director, Francis Ford Coppola) repeatedly tells the bewildered officer not to look at the camera as he passes by.

It's too bad he wasn't present to tell the same to the embattled combatant of a different sort of war in "Two Can Play That Game," a purported comedy that's certain to be the target of all sorts of critical flak. While ordinary citizens are seemingly magnetically drawn to wave, make faces and yell, "Hi mom!" whenever a camera lens points their direction, actors of all ages and regardless of whether they appear on stage, TV or in the movies are told to ignore the audience or camera.

That, of course, is to prevent the viewer from being reminded that they're watching a slice of artificiality. At some point, however, and probably based on theatrical narrators of long ago directly addressing the audience, a few "clever" characters started breaking the "fourth wall" and talking to the camera and thus the viewer.

While occasionally effective (as was the case in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"), the narrative device must be handled with utmost care lest it become an annoyance and/or poor/lazy substitute for traditional storytelling. Unfortunately, both of those facts are true in this film where Vivica A. Fox's scheme-minded character abruptly breaks out of character and addresses us, the "lucky" viewers. We're then treated to her near nonstop commentary, narration and expository information about her battle with her less than completely faithful boyfriend.

Something of a combination of "The War of the Roses," "Swingers" and pretty much any other film where the sexes battle and/or attempt to figure out the other using a variety of unwritten behavioral rules, the film has a smattering of potential - however unoriginal - in its comedic premise of a dating couple's members being too stubborn to work out their problems in a rational manner.

Alas, and following in a long line of films preceding it, this effort squanders such potential due to a clear lack of witty, clever or imaginative material in such regards. That's somewhat disappointing since writer/director Mark Brown (making his debut after co-penning "How to Be a Player") seems to know what he's after. Namely, that's a progressively escalating battle of the sexes where the comedy is supposed to stem from the volleys fired back and forth between the opposing parties in their effort to make the other be the first to give in.

The problem is that such volleys aren't terribly imaginative and neither they nor their results are particularly funny or even amusing. It doesn't help matters that Brown seems to lack faith in the material to stand on its own, thus causing him to tell us in advance - through the characters - what's going to happen next.

The result is a film that offers few surprises and even fewer entertaining moments, points that are exacerbated by the fact that none of the characters are appealing. In films like this, viewers should actively love or hate the characters and/or root for or against their getting back together, all depending on the film's tone and ultimate message regarding such matters.

Here, we don't like the characters - both because they have no redeeming qualities beyond their looks and due to them being one-dimensional creations - and we certainly don't see what they see in each other. That would be fine if they were successfully conceived and performed as comically ruthless people, but alas, they're just poorly drawn cinematic creations that grow more tiresome as the story progresses.

All of which is a shame since the cast members - namely Vivica A. Fox ("Kingdom Come," "Independence Day"), Morris Chestnut ("The Brothers," "The Best Man") and Anthony Anderson ("Kingdom Come," "Romeo Must Die") - are all talented performers who are wasted in this mess.

Gabrielle Union ("Bring It On," "Ten Things I Hate About You") can't do much with her "other woman" character, while Mo'Nique ("3 Strikes," TV's "The Parkers"), Wendy Raquel Robinson ("Miss Congeniality," "A Thin Line Between Love and Hate") and Tamala Jones ("The Ladies Man," "The Brothers") bring absolutely nothing to their roles or the story in general.

Movies focusing on and/or playing off the whole man/woman relationship thing are a dime a dozen, and unless they bring something new, insightful or entertaining to the table, they're worth about as much. "Two Can Play That Game" fails in all three counts, and thus rates as just a 3 out of 10.




Reviewed September 4, 2001 / Posted September 7, 2001


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