Gerard Butler needs to take a hard look at Matthew McConaughey’s career.
Sure, McConaughey has had a great year and may even score an Oscar nomination for his work in “Bernie” or “Magic Mike,” but this renewed success comes after a lost decade where he co-starred in films with Kate Hudson and Sarah Jessica Parker. Macho McConaughey trapped himself in the romantic comedy ghetto, and Butler seems doomed to take his place.
Butler’s choices haven’t helped him. He starred with Jennifer Aniston in the awful “Bounty Hunter,” and his second romantic comedy, “Playing for Keeps,” is nearly as bad.
Butler plays George Dryer, a huge soccer star in the 1990s (second only to Beckham, if the movie’s prologue is to be believed) whose career ended when he broke his ankle. Now George drifts along on his looks and charm (the Scottish accent helps), and when those fail, he sells his old jerseys and cleats to sports memorabilia shops.
George harbors two dreams. He wants to become a sportscaster, and he wants to reunite with his ex-wife, Stacie (Jessica Biel), and their 10-year-old son, Lewis (Noah Lomax). He moves to the Virginia town where Stacie lives, only to discover she is about to remarry.
Through the labored mechanics of Robbie Fox’s script, George becomes the coach of Lewis’ youth soccer team. Soon, a bevy of lustful soccer moms (led by Judy Greer, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Uma Thurman) are licking their lips and making unexpected appearances in the guest house he rents from an ethnically stereotyped comic relief landlord (Iqbal Theba).
Two incompatible types of stories work against each other here. “Playing for Keeps” wants to be a sex comedy very much in the mold of Warren Beatty’s classic “Shampoo” (as in, same concept, but with a youth soccer coach instead of a hairdresser). Yet the film also wants to be one of those heartwarming family comedies about an immature dad who learns he must grow up to be a good father. Such movies were in vogue in the mid-1990s, when I believe this script was written, and usually starred Robin Williams or Tim Allen.
Director Gabriele Muccino pretends he can tell both kinds of story in the same film, but it’s impossible. The PG-13 rating kills the potential for the sex comedy even more than the fuzzy-wuzzy requirements of the father and son bonding story. And with George bouncing from one willing partner in the bleachers to the next, we’re not rooting for the sensible Stacie to reconcile with him.
Muccino could have ditched the immature father storyline, because most of those movies are insufferable anyway, and concentrated on the sex farce. A potential for satire exists with George realizing he is coaching youth soccer in Peyton Place (an angle I suspect was lost in the editing suite). Alongside the randy moms, Dennis Quaid appears as a wealthy and overbearing soccer dad who slips George a fat envelope of cash after the first practice and mentions his son really wants to play goalie.
Yet it doesn’t seem that Muccino let comic potential slip away so much as he didn’t see any potential at all. The sex comedy half of the story is just as dumb and unconvincing as the mawkish family half. As the script follows the schedule for plot points laid out in dozens of how-to-write-a-hit-screenplay books, it exudes a soul-sucking phoniness.
Detached from the real world, “Playing” takes place in a universe that exists only in hack Hollywood comedies. This is a universe where 10-year-olds behave like 6-year-olds because all kids are the same according to screenwriting manuals. Children who play youth soccer tend to be interested in the sport. They don’t sign up because their parents or a script require them to. So why is it that none of the young soccer players has heard of George “Second Only to Beckham” Dryer or is excited to have a former star coach the team?
Even the details of speech are wrong. George talks about a restaurant he read about “on the Internet.” People don’t talk like that. They say, “I read about it on Yelp.” Even worse is the moment when Lewis asks his dad to take him “to the arcade.” Do 10-year-olds today know what arcades are? No, Lewis would cite Chuck E. Cheese by name. Given the long list of corporate sponsors in the credits, I’m surprised the producers overlooked these opportunities to place two more products.
Everything in this film is artificial except for Biel’s performance. Her performance is genuine and her character is believable. A fresh performance in a rotten film is always a curious thing. Was Biel the only member of the cast who didn’t see this as an easy paycheck, or did Muccino convince her and her alone “Playing” was a drama?
No one else thought so. Butler hits the required notes of somberness in his sad father mode, but when he fends off the soccer moms’ advances (not always successfully), he mugs like a handsome Don Knotts. Zeta-Jones and Thurman vamp it up mercilessly in these scenes, while Greer goes from sweet to twee in a heartbeat. Zeta-Jones is the only one who doesn’t embarrass herself.
At least “Playing for Keeps” does a service for the late Rodney Dangerfield. His “Ladybugs” is no longer the worst movie about a youth soccer coach.
“Playing for Keeps”
Rated PG-13 for some sexual situations, language and a brief intense image
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Who’s in it: Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones
What it’s about: When a down-on-his luck former pro soccer star (Butler) agrees to coach his son’s youth team, the several randy moms on the bleachers (including Zeta-Jones and Uma Thurman) decide to make a play for him. This could ruin his chances of reconciling with his ex-wife (Biel).