Silver Screen: Playing for Keeps 1/2*
It's strangely appropriate that Gerard Butler's latest romantic-comedy flop is soccer-themed. Much like soccer, Butler is something popular in Europe that has been unsuccessfully foisted on the American people. “But we already have a Russell Crowe!” the American people protest.
Since his flash of popularity following the surprise success of Three-hundred, Butler has seen his career bifurcate into two directions: as the lead in unsuccessful action movies (Gamer, Law Abiding Citizen, Machine Gun Preacher) and awkwardly paired with hot ladies in unsuccessful romantic comedies (The Ugly Truth, The Bounty Hunter, P.S. I Love You).
It's not that Butler is an awful presence onscreen. He's modestly charismatic, he's just not terribly distinctive, and his choice of roles runs toward the generic. His most memorable movie of late was the widely reviled Ugly Truth, which seemed to consist entirely of reductive gender stereotypes. His latest, Playing for Keeps, continues to overestimate his appeal while uniting him with a whole harem of unlikable and undeveloped female characters.
Butler's George is a former European soccer pro whose star has faded. He's moved to Virginia to be near his ex-girlfriend Stacie (Jessica Biel) and estranged son Lewis (Noah Lomax). When George offers to coach Lewis's peewee soccer team, he draws a lot of interest, especially from the randy soccer moms. There's a fragile, weepy divorcee (Judy Greer) who can barely control her emotional outbursts long enough to sleep with him; a brash sportscaster (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who offers to set George up with a career in broadcasting in exchange for some action; and a lonely woman (Uma Thurman) married to a philandering loudmouth (Dennis Quaid).
Playing for Keeps has the title of a family drama, the concept of a screwball sex farce, and the tone of a gentle romantic comedy. Which one is it? It's none of them, and yet all of them at the same time. The movie veers between weird midnight encounters with lusty ladies interrupted by George's amiable landlord (Iqbal Theba), obligatory kids-say-the-darndest-things sports-comedy gags, and tired rom-com tropes so overly familiar even the characters seem aware of them. The nadir may come when Biel finally rejects the stock-boyfriend character she's set to marry in mere days and he practically hurls himself out of the way so she and Butler can reconsummate their relationship-- you know, like people do. Playing for Keeps isn't just full of clichés, it can't even decide which clichés to indulge in, so it greedily grabs for all of them.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.