December 6, 2012
Some movies are 100 percent polyester, yet the right actors can make the material breathe a little so that the audience wears the experience comfortably for a couple of hours. Opening this month, the Barbra Streisand/Seth Rogen vehicle "The Guilt Trip" belongs to that poly-genre.
And then there's "Playing for Keeps," which is more of a manure-poly blend. The romantic comedy stars Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman, a bizarrely twitchy Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Judy Greer. Only Biel and Greer lift it above the level of bleh.
Per Robbie Fox's script: Onetime Scottish soccer star George Dryer, played by Butler, finds himself down and nearly out and dreaming of a career as a sports broadcaster. He has moved to suburban Virginia (the movie was shot in Shreveport, La., where the tax breaks roam freely) to be close to the preteen son (Noah Lomax) he barely knows.
In various keys of Doormat, Biel does what she can to suggest a real person in the role of George's ex, who's engaged to be remarried. But you never know! Maybe she won't marry that other guy. Maybe she'll get back with the vaguely unsympathetic protagonist.
The second we see George at his son's soccer game, coached by some loser who won't get off his cellphone during practice, we know the score. George will replace him as coach. George will oblige a sexually aggressive and/or insecure soccer mom or two. Eventually George will wise up, put his horndoggery behind him and pursue his ex in earnest in order to make his life whole again.
The women in the film exist to prop up Butler's fabulousness.
"Playing for Keeps" was originally titled "Playing the Field," but it may as well be called "Plowing the Same Old Ground."
The director is Gabriele Muccino, who brought an effective brand of gloss to "The Pursuit of Happyness" but who re-teamed with Will Smith on the risible "Seven Pounds." "Playing for Keeps" is closer to the latter than the former.
Greer, a sparkling presence, offers two amusing throwaway bits involving her sad-sack single-mother character breaking into tears at inopportune moments. Biel's character waits around for her ex to become slightly less of a deadbeat. The film sets a very low bar for its hero's redemption. Butler isn't without talent, but his smarminess is considerable, and to date his most sympathetic screen performance remains the voice of the father in "How to Train Your Dragon."
'Playing for Keeps' -- 1 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some sexual situations, language and a brief intense image)
Running time: 1:45
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