People who fondly remember the clean-cut, family-friendly Andy Griffith of the Mayberry years will be taken aback by what the now-elderly actor submits to in Marc Fienberg’s “Play the Game.” As a lonely octogenarian who takes dating lessons from his womanizing grandson, he happily utters lots of raunchy lines, grins plenty of salacious smiles and even does some decidedly suggestive double-takes in very compromising situations. One can’t help grimacing when old Andy Taylor, protesting that he might not be able to perform in the sack at his age, is met by the woman trying to seduce him (who surreptitiously slips some Viagra into his wine) with the response: “Why don’t you let me worry about what’s going to be hard and raised?” His eyes bulge, and so do ours.
Of course, “Game” isn’t intended to be borderline sleazy; it’s designed to be the sort of slightly naughty, elbow-in-the-ribs farce that older audiences will chortle over, blushing. And perhaps if it were played with the sort of subtlety the clumsy Fienberg seems incapable of comprehending, let alone achieving, it might have been amusing, slightly off-color sitcomish fun. But under his direction it’s so heavy-handed and tone-deaf that one can only sympathize with the actors trapped in it.
That includes not only Griffith, but the other members of the older generation unfortunate enough to be part of Grandpa Joe’s story: Liz Sheridan as Edna, the lady who slips him the mickey that changes his life; Doris Roberts as Rose, with whom he’s really entranced; and Rance Howard as Rose’s boyfriend, from whom he must steal her away. And that’s not counting the other seniors embarrassed in their shorter turns. I decline to identify, for example, the perfectly lovely actress who must play a scene against Griffith in which her character’s Alzheimer’s is tastelessly treated as a laughing matter.
The younger cast members fare even worse, lacking even the affection that naturally accompanies the familiarity the oldsters have earned over the years. Paul Campbell plays David, the self-proclaimed Lothario who claims to know all the tricks of attracting women and tries to instruct his grandfather about them. (They turn out to be wrong, of course; only Viagra works.) He’s not a terribly good actor, or even a very handsome one, and under Fienberg’s leaden hand he comes across as stilted and tentative. A different problem afflicts Marla Sokoloff, who plays Julia, the self-sufficient girl David falls for at first sight, but who resists both his charms and his stratagems. (She also turns out, so very conveniently, to be Rose’s granddaughter.) She’s quite pretty and professional, but as written the character is so stiff and unyielding that the actress’ naturally ingratiating quality is stifled. Among the others, the worst turn certainly comes from Clint Howard (Rance’s son, of course—this is a family affair), who plays David’s nasty father, the car dealer he works for. (David also has selling tricks that make him a salesman par excellence, but they’re of sub-sitcom quality.) Clint’s been playing character parts in horror movies for years, but his over-the-top cameo here is scarier than his work in the slasher junk.
You know from the start that everything’s going to work out just as it should in “Play the Game,” of course, and in that respect alone the picture doesn’t disappoint—the predictability is crushing. This isn’t so much sitcom fare as dinner-theatre material, directed without an ounce of style or panache and played more broadly than an old vaudeville sketch.
As for Andy Griffith, there will always be the endless TV Land reruns, and “A Face in the Crowd,” and his turn as Ash Robinson in one of the most deliciously sleazy mini-series ever made, “Murder in Texas.” Even a movie as bad as this won’t efface those memories.