Vivica Anjanetta Fox is a dependable, fearless performer. She’s always—and I mean always—dynamic and charming, a joy to watch no matter the obstacles that lay in her way. And any Vivica A. Fox fan will tell you, these obstacles have occasionally been formidable, as, for instance, the badly plotted hijinks in Idle Hands or the manifest political constraints of the tv sitcoms, Getting Personal and Arsenio. You know what I’m talking about, and yet, my girl Vivica always comes through.
In Two Can Play That Game, Fox is again up against it. This despite and because of the fact that her character, Shante Smith, is a strong and independent woman, part professional major-player and part sister-girlfriend. An advertising agency partner at age 28 (easily the youngest person in the boardroom, as well as the only black woman), Shante doesn’t compromise her community “values” to get ahead (a 30-second scene displays her command over her white guy compatriots, who look to Shante for guidance on how to make money and influence people, in a “good” way). What’s more, she’s got a solid waiting-to-exhale-ish support-and-advice system in her three girlfriends—Karen (Wendy Raquel Robinson), Tracye (Tamala Jones), and Diedre (Mo’Nique). Again, she does most of the advising, but she genuinely appears to like that role. Though, truth be told, this advice seems pretty obvious, as for instance, when she tries to help Karen, who’s upset that her golddigging, gold-toothed mechanic boyfriend Michael (Bobby Brown) isn’t treating her right, even after she has paid to overhaul his hair, teeth, and wardrobe. Hmmm, what could be the problem here and what should she do? (And I’m not even going to mention that she’s trying to school Mr. My Prerogative.)
Still, for all her self-confidence, sass, and success, Shante has issues. And wouldn’t you know, they have to do with a guy? As Two Can Play That Game begins, she learns that her apparently perfect man Keith (Morris Chestnut) may not be so reliable as she thinks. Her dilemma isn’t just that he might be or have a problem. It’s that her own sense of control over her world is shaken. After seeing him at “their spot” with another woman when he’s supposed to be “working late,” Shante starts to doubt herself, or more precisely, she starts to doubt her belief that she’s always right. Facing this identity crisis, Shante decides that she must “punish” Keith, in order to ensure that he will not step out again, but more importantly, to ensure that her own expectations are correct and righteous.
If you’ve seen a movie based on a Terry McMillan novel, or gee, even a recent romantic comedy, you know exactly where this is going: the girl will get the guy, along with a lesson in how to be less demanding, arrogant, and aggressive, that is, a lesson in how to be more like a traditional girl. Written and directed by Mark Brown (he also wrote How to Be a Player, a film fraught with stereotypes, from which he is eager to distance himself), Two Can Play That Game is premised on Shante’s knowledge of “the rules,” which she proceeds to list and enact for your benefit (“Rule Number 1: Stay cool,” “Rule Number 2: Never let your girls know the whole situation,” etc.). Since this is a comedy about social codes and gendered behaviors, the jokes (some of which are very funny), aren’t strictly inoffensive, and that’s okay. What’s troubling is that, even if Shante’s lesson is a predictable one, because of Fox and the rest of the talented cast, the route to it actually has some potential to be something different. And honestly, that’s why Two Can Play That Game is disappointing. That… and the fact that Fox has to say corny stuff like, “A man’s lovin’ is always better on a full stomach,” or, “What is it about men and big booties?”
All that said, Fox makes the most of the movie’s primary gimmick, which is Shante’s direct address to the camera. Not only does the film take Shante’s point of view, but it also invites you to share it, having her break the “fourth wall,” in a trendy, Malcolm in the Middle-ish kind of way. Fox is terrific fun at these moments, and further, she calls the camera/you “girl,” assuming a sympathetic and knowledgeable female audience and which (after a movie like America’s Sweethearts, so clearly disrespecting its presumed audience) is rather refreshing. As well, Shante’s comments to you allow Fox to act outside the usual generic confines: the character gets to remark on her own unsmart behavior or offer observations that you might make yourself, sort of preemptive catcalls. Still, you do see things Shante doesn’t (as the camera follows Keith home, for instance), and so you are always one up on her. This means that, after a while, her shared confidences start to seem more desperate than assertive, because you know she’ll be paying a price for her loud declarations of self-assurance.
The main reason you know this is Anthony Anderson’s performance as Tony, Keith’s irrepressible best friend and “wartime” counsel. Announcing that the contest is about all men and all women, he vows vengeance and victory. The miracle is that you don’t really begrudge Tony that ridiculous attitude, because Anderson is such a kick to watch. He’s been busy lately (with supporting roles in Kingdom Come, Me, Myself & Irene, Big Momma’s House, and Exit Wounds), and it’s easy to see why: this guy is speedy-electric, injecting all his scenes with a contagious energy. It’s not long before the story is focused on the heady game between Shante and Tony, with Keith as the not-so-interesting intermediary. He’s attractive, yes, but just a little slow, usually waiting to be motivated by Shante or Tony, or later, Conny (Gabrielle Union), the super-smooth, consummately made-up rival whom Shante introduces as a “lay-on-her-back, do-whatever-it-takes-to-get-your-man kinda ho”). Meanwhile, Shante and Tony are hard at it, playing the “game” and enumerating the “rules,” each equally sure that he or she is on top, or at least, anticipating when the next opportunity to get on top will emerge.
It’s too bad that Shante and Keith are the movie’s designated couple who must get back together, because the movie misses the opportunity to do something different, that is, to hook up its real charismatic and emotional powerhouses, Shante and Tony. Just because he doesn’t look like a standard romantic lead, Tony doesn’t even get much of a lesson in the end.