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A few years ago, screenwriter Robbie Fox was a Little League coach who noticed he was getting a lot of unsolicited attention from the mothers of his young players. That was the genesis of Playing for Keeps, with the sport changed to soccer and Gerard Butler cast as a former pro player coaching his son’s team and fending off amorous assaults from a bevy of soccer moms. This is a good premise for a comedy, but somewhere along the way, it got diluted and turned into a sappy, feel-good story of family togetherness. Butler’s fans may help to draw an audience for the film in its opening weekend, but it will be gone by 2013. This one’s no keeper.
George Dryer (Butler) has retired from international soccer and relocates to Virginia to try to re-connect with his son and his ex-wife, Stacie (Jessica Biel), who is engaged to a new man. It’s never quite clear why George is so strapped for cash that he can’t even pay rent, but he’s hoping to re-invent himself as a sportscaster. He gets roped into coaching his son’s team and finds that the position improves his relationship with the boy (appealing Noah Lomax). An unexpected perk is that the soccer moms — who include Uma Thurman, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Judy Greer — find him ruggedly attractive and start treating him as a sex toy to spice up their boring suburban lives. George doesn’t quite have the fortitude to throw them out of bed, but they become a growing distraction to his primary goals.
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The early comic scenes with the soccer moms are the movie’s most promising, but the picture quickly drops the sexual byplay for more dreary scenes of father-son bonding and domestic turmoil. Like many movies these days, the film has half a dozen producers (including Jonathan Mostow, a formidable director in his own right), and the script was probably emasculated by too many interfering hands trying to juggle all the disparate themes. George’s character would have been far more interesting if he were a little more jazzed by all the female attention, but in a misguided effort to win sympathy for him, he’s totally passive as the women throw themselves at him and practically tear his clothes off. Since womanizing was what ruined George’s marriage, it would have been more honest to acknowledge a randier side to his character.
Another drawback of this wavering tone is that most of the actors are stranded with one-note characters to play. Greer and Zeta-Jones are still fun to watch. Zeta-Jones in particular gives a delectable performance as a sexy minx who dangles her connections with ESPN to charm George out of his pants. But Thurman’s role is completely underdeveloped. In one scene she’s the imperious hostess at a neighborhood party, and in the next she’s a panting sex fiend who turns up in George’s guest house in black bra and panties. Most of the supporting players in this movie have way too little to do. Dennis Quaid brings flair to his early scenes as the cocky community big shot, but when he bewilderingly ends up in jail after a scene clearly left on the cutting-room floor, he virtually vanishes from the movie. The worst victim of this wobbly script is James Tupper as Stacie’s fiancé. He stands in the background looking supportive and barely gets to utter a line, so there’s no suspense about which man will ultimately win Stacie’s affections. Even Ralph Bellamy in The Awful Truth or His Girl Friday had more personality when he played the other man waiting to be dumped.
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If this were a romantic comedy of the 1930s, all the secondary characters would be much more richly developed to do justice to the talents of the great actors under studio contract. Nowadays, however, everything is built around stars, and the supporting actors flounder. With a cast as good as this one, that’s a crying shame. And how do the stars fare? Italian director Gabriele Muccino has a gift for finding depth in actors not always known for subtlety. He drew winning performances from Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness and Seven Pounds, and he does equally skillful work with Butler in this movie. It’s one of the actor’s most rounded and engaging performances, and it might have been even better if the script had allowed him to express lust as well as befuddlement and paternal concern. Biel is less fortunate. Her role is underwritten; she has no identity aside from that of concerned mother, and the actress doesn’t quite convince us that she’s a prize worth fighting for.
Technical credits are solid. Louisiana actually doubled for Virginia, but the suburban locations are warmly inviting. The score is a bit soupy, befitting this well meaning but antiseptic portrayal of middle-aged malaise.
Opens: Friday, Dec. 7 (FilmDistrict in association with Millennium Films)
Cast: Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dennis Quaid, Judy Greer, James Tupper, Noah Lomax
Director: Gabriele Muccino
Screenwriter: Robbie Fox
Producers: Jonathan Mostow, Kevin Misher, Gerard Butler, Alan Siegel, Heidi Jo Markel, John Thompson
Executive producers: Peter Schlessel, Avi Lerner, Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, Ed Cathell III, Boaz Davidson
Director of photography: Peter Menzies Jr.
Production designer: Daniel T. Dorrance
Music: Andrea Guerra
Costume designer: Angelica Russo
Editor: Padraic McKinley
Rated PG-13, 105 minutes
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