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Depending on your romantic inclinations, writer-director Mark Brown’s scalding comedy Two Can Play That Game will strike you as either unsparingly clear-eyed or monstrously cynical. Even those who subscribe to its make-war-not-love scenario, however, may concede that it’s the summer’s most disingenuous movie—a real achievement in a waning season that included Tim Burton’s Banana Splits remake.
Vivica A. Fox plays Shanté Smith, a hypersuccessful L.A. marketing flack and control freak who dispenses tough-love advice to her covey of less assured girlfriends. She also imparts her wisdom to us, in painful address-the-camera monologues. Shanté is cozy with Keith (the preening Morris Chestnut), a driven, work-free attorney who is—as we’re reminded almost as frequently as Coca-Cola products dominate the scenery—an expert at “laying the pipe.” The two are prone to lunchtime quickies in the office, which induces fits of crotch-tugging revelry from Keith’s rotund sidekick Tony (Anthony Anderson, providing the film with its only laughs). The trouble comes when Shanté and company catch Keith dancing with perky business rival Conny (Gabrielle Union) while he’s supposed to be working late. The remainder of the film details Shanté’s sadistic, ball-busting revenge on/training of Keith, which predictably backfires when he catches on to her game. The lovers reunite only after Shanté has been made to grovel in the bar in which they met. It’s a brazen act of gender immolation that nauseates rather than tugs at heartstrings.
The only truth Brown reveals in this mean-spirited slag is what a world-class misogynist he is. Beneath Two Can Play That Game‘s supposedly lighthearted look at relationship maintenance and patronizing “sisterhood is powerful” facade is an embittered view of gender relations on par with Neil Labute’s, only without the mitigating irony. A ghastly link is drawn between Shanté’s financial independence and her pathological inability to trust Keith, while her emotional confidence hinges on a shallow materialism we’re meant to admire one minute and despise the next. In the end, the barrage of mixed signals overshadows an important omission from Shanté’s seemingly endless, wholly ventriloquized litany of male shortcomings, which is that they make noxious movies like this one.