Playing for Keeps is the bargain of the season. No matter what kind of drab, derivative fluff you prefer, this exceptionally toothless comedy has something to offer!
Do you like forgettable movies about a charming but mildly irresponsible man who has it all, loses everything, and learns What's Really Important? Do you prefer a Bad News Bears-style story about a raggedy sports team whose fortunes are changed by an unorthodox new leader? Or would you rather see a tacky comedy about suburban soccer moms being overprotective of their precious snowflakes and throwing themselves sexually at the hunky coach?
Playing for Keeps is all of these things -- and more! And less. So much more, and so much less.
Gerard Butler gives a typical Gerard Butler performance -- friendly, eager to please, and largely unsatisfying -- as George Dryer, a once-successful pro soccer player who has fallen on hard times. Why? Dunno. The opening montage of news clips makes passing mention of an injury, but it's the only reference in the entire film, and there's no evidence of it in present-day George. Nor is there an explanation for what became of George's money, or how long ago he quit soccer, or why he has suddenly moved to Virginia to be near his ex-wife and son. It's as if there's a reel missing from the beginning of the movie (not that I am asking for the movie to be longer).
Hounded by creditors and his landlord, George sets his sights on a new career as a TV sportscaster. In the meantime, to placate his ex-wife, Stacie (Jessica Biel), and to spend time with their 9-year-old son, Lewis (Noah Lomax), George agrees to coach Lewis' soccer team. This delights the other players' moms, who immediately set out to have sex with George. The weepy basket case (Judy Greer), the driven career woman who coincidentally is a sportscaster (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the wife of the team's sponsor (Uma Thurman) -- every lady's loins start a-moistenin' when George Dryer strides into view!
But while George enjoys the attention, he is mostly interested in getting Stacie to take him back. It is no obstacle to George that Stacie is engaged to marry her new boyfriend, a perfectly nice fellow named Matt (James Tupper). As to whether George will succeed in breaking them up, keep in mind the movie rule that when a woman has two suitors and neither is blatantly wrong for her, she will choose the one who is played by the more famous actor.
George's fractured relationship with Lewis is the storyline with the most potential, especially since the "George's career" and "George's love life" angles are hokey and underdone. (He impresses the people at ESPN by going off-script. The less said about the women the better, especially poor, flailing Uma Thurman, sneaking into what turns out to be the wrong bedroom to seduce George.) I think we're all in favor of movies where fathers make amends with their sons, and li'l Noah Lomax has the requisite wide, earnest eyes that make viewers' hearts melt. But the flavorless screenplay -- written by Robbie Fox, whose last solo credit was So I Married an Axe Murderer -- is too shallow to provide much opportunity for the emotions to hit home.
Besides, the screenplay is loaded with lard, like a pointless wealthy side character (played by Dennis Quaid) who throws his money around and tries to befriend George. That leads to plenty of wackiness, which director Gabriele Muccino (The Pursuit of Happyness) is eager to exploit, but few actual laughs. The film is aimed at women -- women who don't mind watching a movie in which all of the female characters are embarrassing, man-hungry ditzes, that is -- and I suppose it's harmless enough as far as vapid, lightweight entertainment goes. But I can't imagine you'd feel like you got your money's worth. Not unless you really were in search of something uninspired and vacuous, like I said at the top, but I was only kidding about that.
Playing for Keeps opens wide in the U.S. and Canada on Friday, December 7.