Playing for Keeps

(2012)  1/2 Pg-13
106 min. FilmDistrict. Director: Gabriele Muccino. Cast: Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Dennis Quaid, Noah Lomax.

/content/films/4449/1.jpgAnother day at the Romantic Comedy Factory:

“Hey, Phil. Coffee?”

“Yes please! But listen, Al, Old Man FilmDistrict is on the warpath: we need to get the assembly line moving pronto.”

“Well, fire up the Random Rom-Com Title Generator, then.”


“Here it is: 'Playing for Keeps.’”

“Okay, that’s an easy one: former British soccer star, now a washed-up, unemployed single dad, has moved to Virginia to be close to his ex and their boy.”

“Is the boy doe-eyed and apple-cheeked?”

“Is the Pope Catholic? This isn’t my first day on the job.”

“So the dad coaches the ten-year-old’s soccer team, but keeps screwing things up by accidentally sleeping with soccer moms and disappointing his kid.”

“Really, he’s determined not to lose his family. He’s…playing for keeps.”

“You got it. Pull me down a Gerard Butler and a Jessica Biel, will ya?”

The recession-proof entertainment industry is one of America’s most durable ones, and I know we’re supposed to buy American. But what did P.T. Barnum say? You’ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public? Actually, Playing for Keeps is directed by an Italian filmmaker, Gabriele Mucchino; perhaps a language barrier explains his rubber-stamping a tin-eared script by Robbie Fox. It’s all strictly boilerplate. Will they or won’t they get back together? Will a job offer in a different city pull a family apart? Will the audience fall asleep before they find out?

Actually, there’s some mild rooting interest in Butler’s George Dryer getting it together, mostly in the scenes in which the overgrown boy attempts to bond with his son Lewis (Noah Lomax). But Playing for Keeps is entirely undemanding, mostly unrealistic, not at all funny, and curiously disconnected, with supporting characters that are plot functions rather than people.

Mostly, these comprise actresses rounded up to hit on Butler: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Judy Greer, and Uma Thurman (whose character is married to a glad-handing psycho played by Dennis Quaid). Only Greer milks some laughs, but from a stereotypical desperation shtick, whereas her peers get to more confidently do the same thing: throw themselves at Butler. Meanwhile, the down-on-his-luck George basically lucks into a once-in-a-lifetime job offer, presaging a feel-good happy ending that likewise rings false.

It’s almost as if the movie bought into the parenting advice Biel’s Stacie offers George: “You just have to be there.” Actually, there’s a little more to it.

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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