For all its contemporary swagger and the throbbing score that sounds as though it’s been lifted from an urban FM station, Mark Brown’s new comedy–a kind of feminine-perspective sequel to his script for 1997’s limp “How to Be a Player”–is curiously old-fashioned, even a trifle antique. It’s got lots of “attitude,” including a good deal of vaguely explicitly sexual language; but at heart it’s little more than an updating of those old Rock Hudson-Doris Day movies in which the two stars jockeyed with one another for an advantage in their relationship before predictably falling into each other’s arms at the close. As such it seems quaint rather than edgy,coming across as awfully pallid and obvious despite its ersatz “cool” surface and its attractive cast.
The main character is Shante (Vivica A. Fox), an all-too-perfect ad exec who spends most of the movie talking directly to the audience about her relationship with smooth, hot-shot lawyer Keith (Morris Chestnut). (The device, it should be noted, is better suited to the stage, but when a filmmaker decides to employ it he should at least have the sense to use it sparingly–as is not the case here.) It seems that Shante, who’s got all the rules for boy-girl conduct down pat and shares them endlessly with her colorful pals Diedre (Mo’nique), Karen (Wendy Raquel Robinson) and Tracye (Tamala Jones), learns that her fella has gone out for dinner with an attractive client after breaking a date because he was “working late.” She thereupon embarks on a ten-day “tough-love program” to make Keith sweat and get him back into line. Meanwhile Keith is being instructed on how to respond to each of Shante’s moves by his voluble office-mate Tony (Anthony Anderson), which turns the whole thing into a tit-for-tat competition that can’t help but have twists and turns.
Brown wants his screenplay to be a kind of funny sexual chess match, but what transpires on screen is so old-hat (and explained constantly by Fox in monologues so crushingly didactic that they seem designed for the mentally impaired) that it barely registers at the level of checkers. All the thrusts and counter-thrusts would have been oh-so-familiar even if Rock and Doris had resorted to them forty years ago (the big surprise at the end is to have each link up with somebody attractive to make his/her intended jealous–how terribly innovative). And Tony is nothing more than a rerun of the best-friend or rival figure that weas played in those glossy Ross Hunter epics by Tony Randall or Gig Young– depending, one supposes, on which of them would sign for less.
Still, “That Game” isn’t entirely a drag. Brown does provide some amusing lines, even if they inevitably have a sitcom quality to them, and the performers are generally likable. Fox comes on a mite shrill, but Chestnut is nicely laid-back; and Anderson brings his usual exuberance to Tony. The remainder of the cast is distinctly second-tier, but Mo’nique gets a few laughs from her outsized persona, and Jones and Robinson each get the opportunity to be overwrought (the one weepy, the other angry) over their current boyfriends’ misdemeanors. Technically the production is slick, and as director Brown mostly keeps things moving, although he pauses from time to time to concentrate on one sequence or another (a girlfriend’s spat with her cheating beau, a dream moment when Shante takes revenge on a rival) that would have been better played more swiftly.
Ultimately, Brown’s “Game” doesn’t end as a total loss, but at best it’s a draw between the filmmakers’ abilities and the audience’s (admittedly low) expectations.