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Playing for Keeps


This article was published December 7, 2012 at 3:52 a.m.


Catherine Zeta-Jones likes what she sees in the romantic comedy Playing for Keeps.

— Playing for Keeps

67 Cast: Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Noah Lomax, Dennis Quaid, Uma Thurman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, James Tupper, Judy Greer, Iqbal Theba Director: Gabriele Muccino Rating: PG-13, for some sexual situations, language and a brief intense image Running time: 106 minutes

Gerard Butler has made a solid living coasting on his gruff Scottish drawl and by following an enviably successful diet and exercise regimen. If he did a more thorough job of reading the scripts for films he has agreed to star in and produce, it would be easier to like him when he’s wearing a shirt.

For most of Playing for Keeps Butler alternates between a sport coat and soccer jersey because he’s playing George, a retired European football player whose career off the pitch has been a disappointment.

Actually, it has been a disaster.

A series of failed investments has left him living in the guest house of his much more wellheeled landlord (Iqbal Theba). In addition, his wife, Stacie (Jessica Biel), has dumped him and is about to get remarried, and his son Lewis (Noah Lomax) resents the fact that he can’t get his dad to sit and watch him play soccer.

When George actually attends a practice, he quickly realizes why Lewis’ team can’t win. The current coach is a volunteer who’s more interested in his cell phone calls than in motivating players or running drills.

Out of pity, George shows the youngsters how to shoot and pass, and a fellow parent named Carl (Dennis Quaid) starts slipping him envelopes full of cash because George turns out to be a natural at getting the youngsters to play as well as he used to.

Apparently, all the soccer moms in suburban Washington are either single or take their marriage vows lightly. Before long, one mom (Catherine Zeta-Jones) helps the struggling George get a sportscasting gig with ESPN (Dream On! Dream On!); another (Judy Greer) alternates between throwing herself at George and crying; and Carl’s wife, Patti (Uma Thurman), wants revenge for her husband’s relentless infidelity. She doesn’t seem to mind that Carl is homicidally jealous.

While the words “wishful thinking” seem to be scrolling across the screen, George keeps pining for Stacie. Curiously, neither George’s singlemindedness nor the aphrodisiacal qualities of soccer seem all that convincing. Yes, Butler’s face might explain some of the fascination, and as producer he has the decency to surround himself with equally photogenic women who also happen to be within throwing distance of his age.

The problem is that everything in Playing for Keeps seems so pretty and polished that nothing ever feels authentic. Apparently, director Gabriele Muccino, the mind behind The Pursuit of Happyness, has forgotten everything that made his previous movie work. With that film, Will Smith’s struggles always seemed realistic and identifiable.

With this movie, there’s nothing gritty to speak of, and George’s struggles seem more enviable than involving. Screenwriter Robbie Fox (So I Married an Axe Murderer) seems more interested in getting from plot point to plot point than in making the characters seem more authentic or at least interesting. By the time the whole thing’s through, it’s hard to care which good-looking person ends up with which other good-looking person.

That may explain why Butler flings off his shirt right before the third act starts. His abdominal muscles make a stronger foundation than the script.

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 12/07/2012

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