Playing for Keeps, which isn’t a documentary but instead an innocuous, predictable romantic comedy about a womanizing former soccer star determined to win back his ex-wife and be a real father to their smart and sensitive son. Playful and sweet yet instantly forgettable, it’s the kind of film that has a bit more honesty and heart than many would like to admit, but it still fails to blossom into anything more than the standard romance despite an unexpectedly nuanced screenplay by Robbie Fox (penning his first solo script since 1993’s So I Married an Axe Murderer) and competent direction by Gabriele Muccino (Seven Pounds, The Pursuit of Happyness).
His bank account drained and his libido fatigued, professional soccer player George (Butler) hangs up his cleats and heads back to Virginia. Determined to do right in the eyes of his ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel) and their lonely son Lewis (Noah Lomax), he takes a job coaching Lewis’ youth soccer team and begins shaping the players into true athletes. But with every cougar in town eyeing him from the sidelines, George finds that staying focused on the job and keeping his prurient impulses in check are easier said than done. Meanwhile, as Stacie’s wedding date with new fiance Matt (James Tupper) draws near, George’s efforts to become a sportscaster finally pay off when he’s offered a job at ESPN. Unfortunately, the position would mean moving to Connecticut just as he seems to be making a breakthrough with Lewis. Now the former sports star who still hungers for the spotlight faces a difficult decision: Does he stay in Virginia and devote his life to the only family he’s got, or leave them behind to become a broadcaster at the biggest sports network in the country?
On the surface, Playing for Keeps is a film that virtually invites critics to feast like hyenas: Fox’s screenplay makes few attempts to stray from convention, there’s precious little wit woven into the dialogue, and as George fights to free himself from the Venus flytrap thighs of every lonely soccer mom in town it’s difficult for the character to earn our sympathies. As the story progresses and the plot becomes clear, however, something unusual begins to happen. Characters who initially appeared one-dimensional show hints of complexity not usually found in such lightweight fare, the father/son relationship at the heart of the film casts an unexpected air of tenderness over the entire affair, and bit players such as Uma Thurman (playing drunk to perfection in a crucial party scene) and Dennis Quaid add some much welcomed color to the background.
None of this exactly elevates Playing for Keeps above the standard rom com, though it does help to distinguish it from the glut of contemporary movies that seem content to simply go through the motions. It might not be enough to make a dent at the box office or create any romantic-comedy converts, but for those who buy a ticket with their expectations in check (and others who are reluctantly dragged to the theater along with them), it could be just the kind of pleasant surprise that leaves your inner cynic at a momentary loss for words...at least until you stumble out into the lobby with the horrible realization that you’ve just been emotionally sucker punched by a Gerard Butler movie. leave a comment --Jason Buchanan
Gerard Butler nobly fends off the advances of throngs of beautiful women in