- The Washington Times - Friday, September 7, 2001

The battle between the sexes has a new general in Shante Smith. The sassy senior advertising executive at the heart of "Two Can Play That Game" knows the strategies of love so intimately that she could spout out "The Rules" during REM sleep. The romantic comedy from the scribe responsible for 1997's "How to Be a Player" tells an embittered tale of romantic revenge. And then some.

Shante (Vivica A. Fox) may be the most aggressively proactive female protagonist since Sharon Stone wielded that ice pick in 1992's "Basic Instinct." Except Shante kills 'em with mind games, not sharp implements.

Written and directed by D.C. native Mark Brown, "Two Can Play That Game" tells us all about Shante's emotional crisis when she sees her boyfriend dancing provocatively with a new girl. Or, rather, Shante herself tells us.

The film's main narrative is told to us by Miss Fox, who tears down the fourth wall within the film's first few seconds and never stops jabbering.

Talking back to the audience is a rarely used device for a reason it's fiendishly hard to pull off. Characters as iconoclastic as Ferris Bueller often give a wink or a few thoughts to the audience and nothing more. Miss Fox rarely pauses for a breath in her running commentary.

Her monologue, though, like the film itself, crackles with so much energy that it cloaks the film's mundane revenge motif and drab denouement.

Much of the on-screen gaiety in this "Game" feels like something concocted in a sitcom laboratory. Only in the film's closing credits, when we see a few blooper outtakes, do we catch the charismatic cast letting loose with genuine results.

"Game" follows on the heels of "The Brothers," another romantic comedy with an all-black cast that took modern relationship mores to task. It's a mildly amusing comedy with a hip-hop heart that beats to a player's metronome.

On the surface, Shante has it all a power job, a sleek convertible and the admiration of countless men dazzled by her brains and beauty.

She dissects her girlfriends' failing relationships like a disinterested butcher. It's too easy for her to spot the gristle on their imperfect mates. She lets them cry on her shoulder while visions of her own man, Keith Fenton (Morris Chestnut), dance seductively in her head.

When Keith's eyes start to stray, though, she immediately embarks on a 10-day plan to bring her wolf back into the fold. Her cocksure methods get the ultimate test when Keith fights back in a skirmish for their relationship's soul.

The film quickly establishes the two opposing camps. Shante's team includes three girlfriends who gather regularly to let off steam a la the fiery vixens of "Sex and the City." The latter's frank discourses emerge as far superior.

Keith's team is a one-man squad the garrulous Tony (Anthony Anderson), who alternately whispers and bellows advice into Keith's twitching ears. Mr. Anderson comes on too strong at times, but his zeal and natural comic flair should overwhelm any audience ambivalence.

Mr. Brown structures his "Game" from a thoroughly modern mind-set. It's fast, frenetic and full of plot points worthy of rumination. Singles may gasp in recognition at some of the foul play depicted in the name of love. He clearly did his homework, for many of the conflicts ring unerringly true.

His film rarely rises above TV-level humor, but the director shows promise with several inspired set pieces. A sequence in which Keith muscles away his frustrations with a heavy bag and stomach crunches while Shante is seen singing contently in church says plenty without a word of dialogue.

Minutes later, though, Mr. Brown stages an awkward medley of answering-machine messages left by Keith. "Swinger" did the definitive version of that scene in 1996.

Miss Fox, for her part, sells her Machiavellian manners like a television preacher during sweeps week. It's a gutsy performance that dares audiences to hate her, but she gives Shante a gentle side, one deluded into doing anything to keep a good man.

It's more than refreshing to see an aggressive, bright woman in a movie who uses her gifts not to bed half the men in town, but to keep her own in check — even if her methods border on mania.

Mr. Chestnut's Cheshire cat grin brings an edge to his Everyman role, but he spends much of the movie backpedaling while Shante advances her troops.

Much of what is spoken during "Game" sounds like belligerent stand-ups debating sexual politics. The actors do what they can to make such platitudes sound unforced, but it is a losing cause.

"Two Can Play That Game" may send women scrambling for their scratchpads to jot down some of the strategies revealed.

The film, along with "The Best Man" and the aforementioned "Brothers," marks the start of a new genre — tales of the humorous love lives of upwardly mobile black twentysomethings.

The fledgling genre has yet to yield a classic, but films such as "Two Can Play That Game" will tide us over until that comes.

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