When Andy Griffith last graced the screen, he played a small but dignified role as the curmudgeonly owner of a diner in 2007’s Waitress. Now he’s starring in Play the Game, wherein his character dresses like a gangsta to go pick up women in a retirement-home gym. And he calls Viagra, his new discovery, “bottled erections.” And he tells his grandson, “David, Grandpa’s horny, and he wants to have some fun!”
Astonishingly, writer-director Marc Fienberg’s debut isn’t quite as cringe-inducing as it sounds, largely because the script, though often TMI-graphic, gives Griffith a bit more depth than, say, Betty White’s recent turn as a sex-crazed senior in The Proposal. The former sheriff of Mayberry plays Joe, an 84-year-old who was moved into a retirement community by his grandson, David (Paul Campbell), after Grandma passed away. David’s a slick car salesman, so he has the means. But there’s also some muddy backstory about family tensions involving David’s father and boss (Clint Howard) that sort of explains why, after two years of infrequent visits, David and Gramps suddenly become close enough at the film’s start to share advice about lovin’ the ladies.
It’s the younger man who initiates the topic and teaches Joe his “game,” one not dissimilar to salesman tactics. Joe balks, saying that he misses his wife too much (“I’m lost without her”) and if anything wants a companion, not a conquest. He’s also afraid of getting hurt. But soon he’s dressing up in his finest suit and approaching gentlewomen with a smile and old-fashioned come-ons. It’s this tender side of Joe that makes the film a sweet surprise—at least at first. Even at his corniest, Griffith’s Joe is endearing and sharp, and you feel for the poor guy when he finally does fall for someone (Seinfeld’s Liz Sheridan) who is then moved out of the home by her daughter, who disapproves of their affair. He once again tells David that he’s through with love, that it hurts too much.
But damn, that Viagra is something else. So even though Joe stops seeking love, he’s suddenly bonkers about seeking sex.
By this point, the squirmiest parts of Play the Game are actually over, but then the film jumps firmly into bad romantic-comedy territory with a subplot involving David’s chase of a woman (Marla Sokoloff) who—surprise!—isn’t responding according to his tried-and-true game plan. Gee, do you think the player might learn a lesson? Or that Gramps will ultimately end up schooling the hotshot? Will either of them get the girl?
Sigh. Any genial leeway you may have thus far given the film for its bit of originality and hints of sensitivity now merits reexamining: That scene in which Joe approaches a woman with Alzheimer’s, her affliction played as a joke while a wah-wah soundtrack moans, is as stunningly tasteless as Fienberg’s zooming-in on Joe’s face when he receives his first blowjob. (Oh yes, he did.) Humor, when not cheesily bawdy, is cheesily cheesy, such as when David says “You look dope!” and Gramps replies, “Why’d you dress me like a dope?” (And too conveniently, Joe adopts MTV-appropriate slang overnight when he starts scoring.)
Perhaps not surprisingly, the women fare best here, particularly Sheridan as Joe’s initially shy but then lusty seductress, as well as Doris Roberts, whose well-mannered character is charmed by Joe but won’t stray from her “boyfriend.” (That boyfriend’s fist-shake at the guy trying to steal his girl is one of the funniest parts of the movie.) But they, and the script’s clumsy message about the satisfaction of genuine relationships, are secondary to its larger guys-on-the-prowl theme. When Joe expresses concern about Edna’s desire to turn things physical, he buries his head in his hand and says, “I can’t believe this is happening!” When he later tells David, “Your grandfather’s a sex machine!” you’ll be saying the same thing.