‘Players’ Review: Running the Rom-Com Playbook

“Players” is an old-fashioned romantic comedy, which means you know the end from the start. That’s not a bug; it’s a feature, a well-deployed one in this case. Practically since Shakespeare, the point of rom-coms is their predictability, and that’s what I love about them. Enemies become lovers, friends become lovers, or we all learn a valuable lesson. Those are the options.

The distinctions lie in the specifics, and rom-coms succeed on how memorable those specifics are: enduring a weird Welsh roommate, faking a climax in Katz’s, skewering terrible Christmas sweaters, falling in love over the radio, leading your colleagues in “Thriller” at a work function, enjoying the dulcet strains of AOL’s dial-up tone. I’m showing my age with these references, but you get the idea — the reason we love the great rom-coms are the peculiarities of everyday life that they surface, the minor characters and strange inconveniences that make the characters feel, if not quite relatable, at least like a fantasy version of the lives we are already leading. Which means, of course, that we could find love too.

“Players,” directed by Trish Sie and written by Whit Anderson, does not quite rise to the level of memorable specifics; I experienced déjà vu more than once while watching it. Most of its characters are journalists, a time-tested rom-com career that, in the universe of these movies, seems largely decoupled from what it’s actually like to work for a newspaper, or magazine, or website. (Look, I would know.)

But if it’s both familiar and a little forgettable, “Players” is fun to watch. Our heroine is Mack (Gina Rodriguez), short for Mackenzie, a sports reporter who works for what appears to be a New York alt-weekly that still has the budget to cover bizarre local sports such as “chess boxing.” She is the consummate cool girl: 33 years old, both a total hottie and a total tomboy, unable to do things like make a real meal or read a book. She spends her nights at the bar and knows way more about sports than her friends, all guys: Adam (Damon Wayans Jr.), who writes about local politics; Brannagan (Augustus Pew), an obit writer; and Brannagan’s little brother (Joel Courtney), whom everyone calls Little. The foursome have an elaborate unwritten set of plays that they run to help one another pick up people at the bar. Hence the title.

Mack and Adam dated in college, but they’re just friends now. Mack has set her sights on Nick (Tom Ellis), a Pulitzer finalist war correspondent whom she soon realizes is a real grown-up. Maybe she’s ready to settle down? Ever the helpful companions, the group suits up to help her land her man — but the course of true love, et cetera, et cetera.

The best thing about “Players” is the cadence and camaraderie of the leads, whose jokes come fast and bawdy and feel authentic to a gang of people who’ve known each other far too long. Wayans and Rodriguez in particular have the kind of chemistry that takes over a scene, and as the four waltz around New York doing New York things (hanging out in the park, eating brunch, doing shots, ogling beautiful strangers), they’re fun to watch. But it’s missing the weirdly observed specifics (one character’s defining feature is basically that he’s bisexual) that really make a rom-com sing, and that feels like a shame with this group.

There’s also a tired sameness to Mack’s whole cool girl/hot mess routine, which I think is supposed to be interesting because it’s a different variety of hot mess from regular girls. There are plenty of women who love sports, beer and sex and who don’t have anything but cheese in their refrigerator, but making that a character’s entire personality has always felt a little reductive.

But “Players” won me over in the end, in part because its characters exude sincerity in their care for one another: It’s as much a story of love among friends as it is of any couple, and a handful of good gags and great performances keep the whole thing steaming along. I’m still waiting for the great rom-com resurgence. But for a fun night with Netflix and a pint — of Ben & Jerry’s or of Guinness, your choice — “Players” will do just fine.

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

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