Expectations were relatively low for writer-director Mark Brown’s $13 million comedy Two Can Play That Game when it opened on September 7, 2001. But this Screen Gems movie, which turned only a modest profit during its original theatrical run, has become a durable and much-imitated favorite in the ensuing decade and a half. On the occasion of the movie’s 15th anniversary, writers Hannah Giorgis and Bim Adewunmi have assembled an appreciative and affectionate oral history that includes new interviews with Brown as well as with stars Vivica Fox, Gabrielle Union, Morris Chestnut, and Tamala Jones.
From the vantage point of 2016, it may be difficult to understand exactly what makes Two Can Play That Game so special. But the article points out that the entertainment landscape was very different in 2001. Shonda Rhimes wasn’t a household name back then, and there really hadn’t even been a major romantic comedy with an African-American cast since Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang in 1992. What’s more, Hollywood didn’t seem interested in telling stories about upper-middle-class African-American characters. So, even though it was not apparently conceived as a game changer, Brown’s unassuming film wound up being a turning point in movie history. That’s really only becoming clear in hindsight.
The five-week shoot seems to have been largely a pleasant and stress-free experience for the actors. There are no on-set disaster stories here. What emerges from the interviews, however, is that Fox had to be convinced of the film’s value before she took the starring role of Shante Smith, a strong-willed woman determined to keep her man (Chestnut) from straying. She was concerned that Shante was written as simply a bitch who wouldn’t engender the audience’s sympathy. Also, she wasn’t originally on board with the film’s fourth-wall violations. But then Brown introduced her to the movie that had influenced him: John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Fox remembers:
The breaking of the fourth wall…at first, I didn’t get it. I said, “Why she always turning and talking to the damn camera?” [laughs] I was like, talking to the audience—that’s not cool. They’re gonna be like, “Shut up. Bitch, turn around!” [laughs] It took Clint Culpepper to say, “Vivica, go watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He does it.” It was like a eureka moment for me. I got it. … It was like going into your mind and reconnecting. Breaking the fourth wall was obvious and bringing them all in.
Two Can Play That Game obviously struck a chord with audiences, fourth-wall breaks and all, and the film can be seen as a precursor to numerous current films and shows about affluent African-Americans. It also lives on via an immortal GIF of Union swinging her “power ponytail.”