"The rules are simple. There are no rules."
Two Can Play That Game is a film that explores the games men and women play as courting rituals. It features an almost entirely African-American cast, and a certain street sensibility reminiscent of How To Be A Player (which was written by the writer/director of this film, Mark Brown). The games played are the worst part of relationships, and the thrill sought in dramatizing them is lost amidst a relationship the audience has to work to care about. This might have worked with a little more sense of fun, but there's a smugness to the proceedings which bogs the film down.
Facts of the Case
Shante Smith knows everything about everything. She is a successful advertising executive, the beacon of advice for her friends, and simply the most together person on the planet. She knows men, and she knows how to keep them in line. When the faithfulness of her man Keith (Morris Chestnut) is called into question, Shante embarks on a ten-day program to get him back into working order. What she doesn't know is, two can play that game.
Some bad signs right off the bat about this movie:
1. "Girl, you know you gotta kick him to the curb" is one of the first phrases uttered
2. Said tired phrase illustrates that Vivica A. Fox is back in the no-you-dih-ent mode she unfortunately perfected in Booty Call, speaking directly into the camera this time.
3. After being cartoonishly ogled by an elderly white man, Fox wonders aloud about what it is with men and big booties. No, seriously.
A movie like this is a tricky thing. It requires that we're interested in the main character more than most films because they are speaking directly to us much of the time. What this film doesn't have, which High Fidelity, Annie Hall and Ferris Bueller's Day Off all had, is a central character worth identifying with. One could argue that it might be difficult for a white male kid from suburbia to identify with a professional black woman from Compton no matter how well the film was made, but I also am not a nebbishy, neurotic New Yorker who's afraid of his own shadow and I still empathize with Alvy Singer.
Fox tries her best as Shante, but she comes off as smarmy and pretentious instead of as a woman in-the-know. Her advice is also curious. My ears perked up when she said she knew how to find out if "your man is cheating," but I was disappointed that her ploy was to plant some panties and ask your man who they belonged to. I'm not sure one of the things I want associated with my relationships is entrapment. Shante's bubble is burst when she finds Keith dancing with a "ho," and for a moment there's hope that the rest of the movie will be about the humbling of Shante. However, almost immediately after the revelation, Shante is wiping her tears and cocking her brow again to inform the audience that in such a situation, keeping your cool is the first priority (she later reveals that lying to your friends about how you feel is the second). Shante's mission is now to straighten Keith out, though as the audience knows immediately, Keith wasn't cheating.
This brings up the movie's main problem from this point out. Keith's only sin seems to have been dancing with a coworker after hours. As Keith explains, they were even at Shante's favorite spot, and were hardly trying to hide anything. For this, Shante decides to tell Keith they need to take a break from their relationship, test the waters, and she launches into a 10 day plan of carefully plotted manipulation. This seems like a serious overreaction, though I suppose it does fall in line with one of Shante's cardinal rules: "When your man messes up, no matter how small it is, you gots to punish him. Punish him hard." She continues to remain calm as she maneuvers, going so far as to cozy up to a man a little too much at a church where she knows Keith's friends will be able to see. She also gives the anti-communication advice that "you can do more with silence than you ever can with speaking." Personally, I kept wishing she would follow her own advice and stop talking, or that that Keith would take her advice from the beginning of the film and kick her to the curb. Keith takes it however, continuing to call her and stew while she enjoys her game of deception ("tough love," she calls it). The pattern is endless, and each ruse Shante plots gets more and more obnoxious. My eyes were crossing by the forced finale, where Shante finds a redemption of sorts, and their entire relationship quandary is solved in a laughably tidy way relative to the pains Shante went through.
It's presented in widescreen anamorphic and full screen, and the picture is clear and clean in both with little lost in full screen. The film has an inviting look, using tasteful earth tones that are more Waiting To Exhale than Booty Call. The hip-hip dominated soundtrack bumps and grinds on the disc's 5.1 and Surround mixes, and aside from some funny crowd noise during the club scenes, nothing stood out in the 5.1. This is mostly a talking movie, or a screaming movie, without much room for expansive sound.
Director Brown does a slow, mildly informative commentary, which is slightly self-congratulatory. He talks a little bit about his motivations for the film, but mostly the observations are production oriented. Since he is a first-time director, most of these insights are common knowledge to the typical DVD commentary fanatic.
There are also three decent featurettes, detailing the cast, the trials for first-time director Brown, and Fox's first experience as a lead. The first is the most entertaining, as there's several amusing observations by the cast on their own experiences with love. There's no shortage of confidence with this bunch, and though it can be grating at times, it's mostly entertaining.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's a classiness to the lifestyles of the protagonists that is refreshing to see in an African-American movie, and it's wisely underplayed so as not to call attention to itself. The respective sidekicks are also surprisingly funny, but their manic comic approach isn't enough to save the drab main story.
A good idea with too much sass and not enough insight, this film's mistake began in its inception and wasn't helped with weak casting for its leads. The film does have its funny moments, and is one of the least brash in this genre. It's confident, and that's a rarity these days, but one wishes the film had a little more to boast about. Don't play this game unless they're all out of Waiting to Exhale.
Guilty of pretense in the first degree, sentenced to life in the under-the-TV drawer.
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