With Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Dennis Quaid, Uma Thurman, Catherine Zeta-Jones. Written by Robbie Fox. Directed by Gabriele Muccino. Rated PG-13 for some sexual situations, language and a brief intense image. 95 minutes.
Did you ever heat up something in the microwave and miscalculate the time? The edges are nice and hot but as you start eating, you realize it wasn’t cooked all the way through. The warm parts are edible but then you bite into something still ice cold and realize it’s just not done cooking. That’s a perfect metaphor for PLAYING FOR KEEPS, a romantic comedy that has its moments and a top-notch cast, and yet in the end proves utterly forgettable and completely half-baked.
Gerard Butler stars as George, a former soccer star. He’s divorced and is trying to keep a relationship going with his young son (Noah Lomax) but can’t seem to find work. He’s hoping to get into sportscasting but somehow finds himself coaching his son’s soccer team. The bulk of the film’s complications come from George’s interactions with the various parents connected to the team.
His ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel) lives with her boyfriend and is planning on remarrying, but George still carries a torch for her. Barb (Judy Greer), Patti (Uma Thurman) and Denise (Catherine Zeta-Jones) all have the hots for George and don’t mind showing it. George isn’t interested, and what’s worse, Denise’s husband Carl (Dennis Quaid) is George’s patron, a wealthy guy willing to share the wealth if George looks out for Carl’s kid. Indeed, Quaid is so hilariously obnoxious as Carl you wish the film was about him. On the one hand he brags about having affairs, while on the other hand he has a detective following his wife to make sure she isn’t doing the same.
The problem is that the film is more fantasy than comedy, since its focus is how George wants to get Stacie back. The problem is that the two characters are so poorly defined that we don’t get much of a sense of what is at stake. If they were as in love as they claimed – it was supposedly the great romance for both – why didn’t they try to work out their problems rather than getting divorced especially once children were involved? Divorce happens, of course, but it’s usually more serious than what we see here.
What carries the film is the force of personality. When George turns down Denise, Zeta-Jones crackles as she delivers the line, “You don’t know what you’re missing.” Butler is charming, getting much mileage from his Scottish accent. We see a little of his coaching style – referring to the opposing team as “wankers” – but that turns out to be another road not traveled. This is no “Bad News Bears,” and the fortunes of the soccer team are relatively unimportant.
In the end, “Playing for Keeps” is more about how attractive the cast is, and how audiences should like sinking into the movie’s tepid warmth. Like those undercooked leftovers, it makes you wish they had spent a little more time getting some heat into it.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released in January 2013. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.