During the slow week for wide releases, “Playing for Keeps” gets dumped into theaters as counter-programming before the storm of Oscar hopefuls. Its marketing seems perfect for a crowd-pleasing pre-holiday release, but there’s not much of a very good movie here. In fact, it’s such a lightweight, thirdhand throwaway, not an unwatchable disaster, that the dreaded January would’ve been a better release date. Directed by Gabriele Muccino (who fared well with Will Smith in “The Pursuit of Happyness” and not so well in “Seven Pounds”) and written by Robbie Fox (his last credit being 1993’s “So I Married an Axe Murderer”), this vanilla, instantly forgettable romantic comedy will only satisfy first-time moviegoers and the most undemanding female. Everyone else will be checking their watch.
After being hailed as “King George” for years and then retiring, washed-up Scottish soccer star George Dryer (Gerard Butler) is now a dead-broke deadbeat trying to get work as a sportscaster. He can’t really afford his rented guest house, but now resides in Virginia to be closer to his 9-year-old son, Lewis (Noah Lomax), and ex-wife, Stacie (Jessica Biel), who’s about to get married to her beau of three years (James Tupper). Since the movie will be about George getting a second chance and earning back responsibility, he takes over coaching for Lewis’ pee-wee soccer team, and good riddance because the present one uselessly spends practice on the phone and sometimes shouting “Kick with your toes!” Right then and there, George becomes bait for the soccer moms (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Judy Greer, Uma Thurman), but no prizes for guessing who George ends up with.
Fox’s script sets up a fine situation, but needed to work out the kinks before the execution stage. George’s passion for sportscasting is barely believable. Without any experience, he tries shooting a video reel from the waist up, without any pants on, in his living room. Then when he auditions and stops reading from the teleprompter, it’s pretty tone-deaf when ESPN falls in love with him for that amazing trick. Save for Biel’s Stacie, every soccer mom on screen comes across as a vapid, sex-starved cougar on the prowl, flinging themselves at their child’s hunky coach as if they have nothing more productive to do. There’s also a soccer dad, smarmy high-roller Carl (played by a creepily twitchy Dennis Quaid), who flashes around money and takes care of George by giving him a wad of cash “for the kids,” as well as a shiny red Ferrari. All plot points with Carl are just baffling. One might also question the consequences of the ever-late George missing a game with Lewis when he’s already been named the coach, but “Playing for Keeps” is riddled with sloppiness like that.
Showing some superficial charm in the middling “The Ugly Truth” and the noxious “The Bounty Hunter,” Butler seems to have a charismatic, ruggedly handsome leading man in him somewhere but without a good script to support him. But, as George, he’s mostly empathetic and appealing. When he played pro soccer, George “used to get more ass than a toilet seat”; he’s still a smoothie but has cleaned up his act somewhat. As The One That Got Away, Biel resembles a real person and not a complete shrew, but her character is terminally bland. Why should we root for George and Stacie to get back together when she seems to have her life together?
As a former radio personality who uses her connections to get George’s attention, Zeta-Jones engages in some heavy petting with co-star Butler and looks chic and sultry doing it. The wonderful Greer flounders in a nothing role as the brittle, divorced Barb, who’s prone to meltdowns and turns into a giggling idiot, stalking George one night to sleep with him. Finally, there’s Thurman, squandered in a role so beneath her as Carl’s wife, who (in an allegedly comedic attempt at “wacky hijinks”) ends up in George’s landlord’s bed by accident to seduce him in lingerie.
For a rom-com, the romance is tepid and the comedy is flat-footed. The final scenes can be predictable as long as they hit the right emotional response, but instead they’re synthetic and empty, while treating its characters as selfish and illogical. A formulaic, bare-minimum piffle with attractive movie stars for a distraction, “Playing for Keeps” is a harmless way to pass the time, but it’d be more fit for your living room on the ABC Family network.
105 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C –