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Playing for Keeps

2012 | 105 min | PG-13 | 2.39:1

Playing for Keeps


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Theatrical release date

 07 December, 2012
 01 January, 2013

Country of origin

 United States

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Screenshots from Playing for Keeps Blu-ray

Playing for Keeps Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, December 7, 2012

At this point, I’m positive Gerard Butler selects his scripts by blindfolded dart throw. There’s really no other way to explain why he, and a bevy of capable actresses, could be drawn to such a shallow, predictable hodgepodge of plasticized feelings and sitcom mechanics. “Playing for Keeps” has moments where its intent as a human story of yearning and regret is visible, but it takes a considerable effort to find, forcing ticket buyers to wade through abysmal dialogue and unfortunate performances to locate a few passably endearing moments. The rest of the feature is determined to chase nonsense, with the whole thing so awkwardly orchestrated, I’m surprised director Gabriele Muccino kept his name on the picture.

A Scottish football star throughout the 1990s, George (Gerard Butler) has fallen on hard time, struggling to make a living off his stardom, also relocating to Virginia to be close to son Lewis (Noah Lomax) and ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel), who’s about to remarry. Facing mounting debt, George hopes to find his fortune in sportscasting, only to find entry into the vocation difficult. Hoping for a distraction, the former superstar elects to coach Lewis’s soccer team, bringing his knowledge of the game to a throng of suburban kids. His presence on the field also stirs the interest of the local moms, with sadsack Barb (Judy Greer), influential Denise (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and confused Patti (Uma Thurman) hoping to take a bite out of the coach behind closed doors. Interest also emerges from Patti’s husband Carl (Dennis Quaid), a shady businessman who looks for friendship with George, plying him with money and cars. Overwhelmed by the attention and all the fringe benefits, the coach still pines for Stacie, making Lewis anxious as his hope for a parental reconciliation is threatened by George’s temptations.

“Playing for Keeps” is one confused movie. The screenplay by Robbie Fox is all over the map in terms of broad comedy and melodrama, making it difficult to suss out the intent of the piece. Obviously, the picture wants the viewer to sympathize with George, who’s a desperate man without any job prospects, carrying a torch for a woman he once neglected while trying to be a decent, engaged father to his impressionable son. However, George is a character clearly making life difficult for himself, with Muccino (“The Pursuit of Happyness,” “Seven Pounds”) failing to finesse the man’s troubles in a way that keeps the coach reasonably distracted and not just a dim-wit falling into easily avoidable traps. It’s impossible to root for a man who chases stupid mistakes instead of making them naturally.

Female characters don’t fare much better in “Playing for Keeps,” scripted as either earnest angels or hot to trot soccer moms looking to fill a void in their lives with George’s attention. If Fox’s goal was to create a sex farce with the material, he’s fumbled the potential for freewheeling fun by creating such unlikable ladies with severe psychological problems, playing their fragile vulnerability for laughs. Instead of cocktail-hour shenanigans with George and his harem, we’re treated to scenes of emotional distress, including a moment where Patti strips down to her underwear in George’s apartment and manically wonders why he won’t sleep with her. Because nothing’s more hilarious than a clearly unbalanced woman begging for sex. The same icky sensation coats Denise’s subplot, where the tightly-skirted tigress tempts George with an ESPN audition with hopes to bed him along the way.

Between acts of seduction (where Barb breaks down into tears), “Playing for Keeps” also wants to tug at a few heartstrings along the way, focusing on Lewis’s discomfort with the dual custody situation, while Staci struggles with unresolved feelings for George, allowing the smooth-talker (with his exotic Scottish brogue) to wind his way back into her life. Biel is actually somewhat effective in the role, communicating a sense of confusion and trepidation that’s plausible, but a full handle on Staci’s perspective is routinely denied to pursue George’s “Three’s Company” adventures with misunderstandings and near-misses. The third act really lays on the schmaltz to squeeze tears out of the audience, once again confusing the overall tone of “Playing for Keeps,” that is, if you’re still awake to greet the displays of imitation ache.

Clinging to his external appeal, Butler doesn’t provide any soul to “Playing for Keeps,” with Muccino keeping his actor shirtless and unshowered, avoiding the performance for as long as possible. It’s flavorless work that depends greatly on Butler’s sex appeal. Worse is the supporting cast, with Greer and Zeta-Jones floundering in their comedic turns, while Thurman’s role looks as though it’s been shaved down considerably from its original intent. It’s Quaid who trumps everyone with his work here, providing a broad approximation of a wheeler-dealer, stumbling through his lines as though they were being fed to him via earpiece. It’s embarrassing to watch at times.

And for those who delight in the seams of filmmaking, sections of “Playing for Keeps” have been obviously reshot, with Butler’s carefully tousled, oily hair replaced by a rat’s nest wig during scenes between George and Lewis. There’s also moderate use of digital smoothing to keep the actresses fresh and appealing during some wrinkly scenes. It makes the women look like CG-creations at times.

With everything running around “Playing for Keeps,” the production makes room for a Big Game finale, where the soccer kids make a run for the championship. It’s excessive and a calculated attempt to bring a happy ending to an otherwise dreary picture. However, complaining about climatic formula is futile with this effort, which is mummified by hokey dialogue and rampant clichés, generating a tiresome atmosphere of staleness that’s unable to be lifted by the movie’s feeble attempts at hanky panky.

Starring: Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Judy Greer, Dennis Quaid
Director: Gabriele Muccino

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