The oddly unsatisfying big-screen career of Gerard Butler takes another unfortunate turn with Playing for Keeps, a sexualized romantic comedy built around kids' soccer. It makes its way into theaters as Butler's previous effort, the surfing movie Chasing Mavericks, beats a hasty retreat to home video.
Keeps has Butler dialing down his swagger and charisma when the whole movie is utterly reliant on both. As a divorced ex-jock who needs to grow up and be a father to his kid, this guy should be all testosterone, wallowing in past glory and the sexual conquests that made him a soccer legend and, we're led to believe, ended his marriage.
But whatever edge George Dryer had in Robbie Fox's script, Butler has rubbed off. He's at his most charming here, pandering to his female fan base. More's the pity, because that base is shrinking by the hour.
George is a Scot whose playing days are over. Broke and longing for a shot at a TV sportscasting career, he's moved to northern Virginia, where his ex, Stacie (Jessica Biel), and their son, Lewis (Noah Lomax), live.
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The kid's into soccer because, as George says, "It's in your blood." He and his team just need proper coaching, something the cellphone dads of suburban Washington can't provide.
George takes over.
That's when the soccer moms come around. Some are single, some aren't. Barb (the adorable Judy Greer) breaks into tears every time she questions the coach about her son, but she's not above throwing herself at the guy. Nor is the vivacious manhunter Denise (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
Dennis Quaid is a rich backslapper who uses George's celebrity to impress clients, but whose neglected wife (Uma Thurman) could use a little Scotch — or a big strapping Scot.
Meanwhile, George is making a heartfelt, sentimental play for ex-wife Stacie, who is about to remarry and isn't hearing it.
There's a time-honored tradition of action heroes and leading men reviving their careers with movies filled with kids. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has done it repeatedly (see: The Game Plan, The Tooth Fairy). Even Jeff Bridges was reduced to playing a girls' gymnastics coach in Stick It before winning his Oscar for Crazy Heart and staging a comeback. But most of these guys had the good sense not to build those dreams on the guy who wrote So I Married an Axe Murderer.
A few performers stand out here, with Greer, Thurman and Quaid landing the laughs. But the direction by Gabriele Muccino (Seven Pounds) is an uncomfortable mush of sentimental and sexy.
All those kids on the set, those long game sequences and the star's determination to play safe, sweet and nice rob Playing for Keeps of its potential. A swaggering ex-jock who needs to get over his womanizing isn't the passive, put-upon sexual patsy that Butler plays here, helpless in the presence of a beautiful woman.
This could have been a saucy What Women Want, with just a smattering of soccer. The emphasis on the kids and "the beautiful game" make Playing for Keeps a new Kicking and Screaming, but without Will Ferrell. And even he wouldn't want to see that.