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Tedium for Two

Two Can Play That Game gives voice -- and far too much of it -- to female dating tactics.

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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 arrogant show, his opponent got the upper hand; Lawler dropped the mic and stooped to illegal tactics to pull off a cheap win.

Similar tactics fail when utilized in the new romantic comedy Two Can Play That Game. Following a brief montage of helicopter shots of downtown L.A. (seemingly the same opening sequence used in The Brothers, with which this film shares stars Morris Chestnut and Gabrielle Union), Two Can Play settles into the 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, e.g. 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), Two Can Play is more like a staged one-woman solo performance from Fox without the benefit of the heartfelt emotion and wit that such shows 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 first-time director Mark Brown's script (he's also the scribe of the extraordinarily similar Bill Bellamy comedy How to Be a Player) that lets her down, forcing her 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. 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 (Dondré 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 up people and is surprised to find that her man (Ian "Blaze" Kelly) is fat, lazy and unmotivated.

Shanté's complacency is undermined when Keith tells her he's going to be working late (warning sign No. 1 of a cheat, she tells us), but is discovered at a bar with another woman. What she doesn't know (and we, of course, 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 walks us through the cycle, step by painful step, for the rest of the movie.

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

Too bad very few of these high jinks are actually funny -- the outtakes at the end suggest a more relaxed ensemble vibe that the film proper is unable to recreate. Some ideas could have been funny -- there's 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 must remind us that something is funny, the gag doesn't work on its own. 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, 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 can't always be applied to love, and she's been an arrogant and self-righteous control freak. If the protagonist were male, you know he'd have to humiliate himself at the end to win back his true love's heart. But Shanté doesn't endure any such moment. Maybe this is what's considered girl power nowadays, and maybe some guys are horny enough to fall for it. But rubbing our noses in it hardly seems like a good plan.

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