Review: Playing for Keeps

daniel cohen reviews the latest gerard butler romcom…

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Plot: A now faded soccer star, George Dryer (Gerard Butler) moves to Virginia to be closer to his 9 year old son Lewis (Noah Lomax), and ends up coaching his soccer team as he tries to become more responsible, and prove himself to his former love Stacie (Jessica Biel), who is set to marry another man (James Tupper).

This is actually the first film I’ve seen Gerard Butler in. I never saw 300, and all the romantic comedies and action movies he’s been in previous looked absolutely atrocious, and have been reviewed as such. For my first Gerard experience, I was pretty nervous, but this guy actually surprised me with his charisma, and I enjoyed him a great deal in Playing for Keeps. In fact, the actors really elevated what is an otherwise poorly written script, and turn it into something that is pretty hard to dislike.

Now as I mentioned before, the script is a mess. In the first half of this movie, I wasn’t really sure what the primary focus was. Is it George bonding with his son? Is it him coaching this soccer team, and dealing with soccer dads/moms? Does he want to be with his old flame again? I guess it’s all these things, but it’s laid out messier than a Tetris game. And with all this stuff going on, it seems like the movie is only concerned with what crazy house wife George is going to sleep with next. But despite the film’s lack of focus, the characters are all generally likable, flawed as they are, and if they weren’t likable, they were at least funny.

One character that comes to mind was Dennis Quaid who plays Carl, a wealthy jackass of a dad who bribes his kid into a goalie position, and gets his teenage daughter to sing the national anthem before games. Really? We need someone to sing a National Anthem at a Under 12 youth soccer game…come on. But to Quaid’s credit, he’s such a slime-ball that you can’t help but laugh, and Quaid plays that perfect balance of just enough asshole where it’s still funny.

While Quaid’s performance may have been my favorite, I also enjoyed Butler and Jessica Biel who are the two characters in any romantic comedy you have to like. It’s easy to write them as whiney self absorbed d-bags, but in the end, you want to see them succeed. George certainly does some things that aren’t very fatherly, but you always know he’s trying, and his heart is in the right place. Biel’s character Stacie is the same way, but in any romantic comedy, there’s going to be perfectly good people who are left in the dust just because they aren’t the main character, and Stacie is responsible for that later in the film. But that’s just one of the pitfalls of the genre.

Then we have the three main housewives. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the aggressive Denise, who is not only after George, but tries to help him get a sports casting job. She’s very underwritten, but Jones certainly puts some spunk in her. I can’t say I liked the other two housewives though. Judy Greer plays the divorced uptight Barb, who is overly pathetic, especially when she shows up un-announced at George’s house. It’s the type of scene that doesn’t let up to how pathetic the character is that it becomes hard to watch, similar to when Jon Favreau’s character keeps leaving messages on Heather Graham’s machine in Swingers, except that scene was funny. And finally there’s Uma Thurman as Patti, Quaid’s disgruntled wife. Uma Thurman might be the most inconsistent actress I’ve ever seen. She can be brilliant at times, but at others, she can be a complete train wreck, like in this film. The movie wants you to sympathize with her to some extent, but she just comes off as cold, bitter, and pathetic. The housewife sub-plots in general were the weakest part of the film, as they all come off as whackos to the point of being unbelievable.

Despite the up and down characters, the jokes work for the most part. Nothing had me in stitches, but it never de-grades into pratfall territory, nothing is offensive, and I even had some solid chuckles. George’s landlord Param played by Iqbal Theba was particularly funny, and had some solid bits. The only cringe worthy joke is when George is being introduced to the kids as the new coach, and all the kids start listing off terrible personal tragedies like dead siblings, and then they all of a sudden start laughing. They played it as really lighthearted, but I have no idea if these things were actually true and the film was trying to play it as funny/awkward, or if it was supposed to be funny because the kids were joking. Regardless, I had no idea what the hell was going on with this joke, and it was just awkward for the audience as nobody laughed whatsoever.

Despite an inconsistent script, and some up and down characters, the film finally settles into what it’s supposed to be in the second half, and that is the relationship between George and his son. And that’s the storyline that fires on all cylinders. Is it clich├ęd and a bit forced…maybe. But the actors make it work, and it’s the type of storyline that is hard to shrug your shoulders at. I think actors like Gerard Butler and Jessica Biel deserve to get a shot at better material, but I was thankful they were here putting in a 100% effort in an otherwise predictable ho-hum premise. They are a big reason why this film comes off more charming than not.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10 (Slightly better than ‘meh’)

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow’s fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.