Robert Townsend is one of those filmmakers who helped blaze a trail for his future black directors, writers and actors with work on Eddie Murphy: Raw, Hollywood Shuffle and one of my all-time favorites Five Heartbeats [Blu-ray].
Those three films alone grant Townsend a lifetime pass from me. His career can be littered with awful films, but I’ll always hold him in high esteem. It’s why his latest, Playin’ for Love, is such a disappointment. Too formulaic and simple, Love is the kind of film you’d sorta halfway pay attention to while doing some household chores and still feel like it wasn’t worth the investment.
Coach Banks (Townsend) is vying for his seventh high school basketball title and when the area’s hottest prospect, Justice (Daniel Yorel Cooper), transfers to his Generals squad, the latest championship seems a lock. But Coach Banks gets more than he bargained with Justice’s mother, Talisa (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), who arrives with plays drawn up to showcase her son and help him get the best scholarship opportunities.
Talisa is a nightmare, forcing Banks to use her plays or not allowing Justice to play. Considering Justice is supposed to be such a game-changer, the Generals compete in a lot of tight contests. When the opportunity presents itself for Banks to get a high-paying college basketball coach gig provided he gets Justice to commit to a team, Banks decides wooing Talisa is the best course of action. Naturally, things don’t go as planned and Banks begins developing real feelings for Talisa and her family.
Townsend juggles and rushes through so many subplots that none have the opportunity to be developed properly. The biggest one that really needed further explanation was why Banks had hottie Shannon (Elika Crespo) so desperate to be with him.
It’s not like Banks was making a ridiculous salary as a high school basketball coach or there was a throwaway line about Shannon having daddy issues she needed to address. It simply just seemed like Townsend wanted to add some more eye candy to the film beyond Richardson-Whitfield and Melyssa Ford as a TV investigative reporter/color commentator.
The humor never quite connects either and feels a bit out of touch. Townsend has shown to be tremendously witty, but this isn’t the best example of his talent as the majority of the jokes just fall flat. At worse, the jokes are just embarrassing that someone considered them funny.
The basketball sequences are the biggest tell of the limited budget as those scenes are shot with tight camera angles and numerous half-court perspectives.
If anything, Playin’ for Love is far better suited for a TV series than a movie. There, Townsend could spend more time on Banks bonding with Talisa’s four children, Talisa’s nail salon exploits with her friend Alize (Jenifer Lewis), Talisa’s baby daddy Cooty (Kevin A. Walton) and Justice’s basketball team.
Trying to give adequate screen time to all these issues while handling the main plot in the brief 84 min. run time doesn’t do justice to anyone from the cast or the audience. Townsend has had success with other formats with his properties, namely the web series Diary of a Single Mom starring Monica Calhoun.
The cast is likable enough that it’s easy to see caring about them in a different format. Townsend and Richardson-Whitfield make for a charming pair and it’s nice to see a romantic comedy with leads over 40 years old. The focus on that unusual romance would have been enough to make the film click, but Townsend the director/writer is too busy running plays that can’t work to make the film a winner.
Rating: 4 out of 10
Buy it on DVD from Amazon.com: Playin’ For Love
[amazon asin=B016PGEUNU&template=iframe image][amazon asin=B003Y5H58S&template=iframe image][amazon asin=B003UEYBK8&template=iframe image][amazon asin=B00004Y2R1&template=iframe image]