Saturday, December 8, 2012

Harmlessly vanilla "Playing for Keeps" phones it in

Playing for Keeps (2012) 
105 min., rated PG-13.

During the slow week for wide releases, "Playing for Keeps" gets dumped into theaters as counter-programming before the storm of Oscar hopefuls. Its marketing seems perfect for a crowd-pleasing pre-holiday release, but there's not much of a very good movie here. In fact, it's such a featherweight, thirdhand throwaway, not an unwatchable disaster, that the dreaded January would've been a better release date. Directed by Gabriele Muccino (who fared well with Will Smith in "The Pursuit of Happyness" and not so well in "Seven Pounds") and written by Robbie Fox (his last credit being 1993's "So I Married an Axe Murderer"), this vanilla, instantly forgettable romantic comedy will only satisfy first-time moviegoers and the most undemanding female. Everyone else will be checking their watch.

After being hailed as "King George" for years and then retiring, washed-up Scottish soccer star George Dryer (Gerard Butler) is now a dead-broke deadbeat trying to get work as a sportscaster. He can't really afford his rented guest house, but now resides in Virginia to be closer to his 9-year-old son, Lewis (Noah Lomax), and ex-wife, Stacie (Jessica Biel), who's about to get married to her beau of three years (James Tupper). Since the movie will be about George getting a second chance and earning back responsibility, he takes over coaching for Lewis' pee-wee soccer team, and good riddance because the present one uselessly spends practice on the phone, sometimes shouting "Kick with your toes!" Right then and there, George becomes bait for the soccer moms (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Judy Greer, Uma Thurman), but no prizes for guessing who George ends up with.

Fox's script sets up a fine situation, but needed to iron out the kinks before the execution stage. George's passion for sportscasting is barely believable. Without any experience, he tries shooting a demo reel from the waist up, without any pants on, in his living room. Then when George auditions and stops reading from the teleprompter, it rings completely false when ESPN falls in love with him for that amazing trick. Save for ex-wife Stacie, every soccer mom on screen comes across as a vapid, sex-starved cougar on the prowl, flinging themselves at their child's hunky coach as if they have nothing more productive to do. Notice how they attend nearly every practice and game. There's also a soccer dad, smarmy high-roller Carl (played by a creepily twitchy Dennis Quaid), who throws his money around and takes care of George by giving him a wad of cash "for the kids," as well as a shiny red Ferrari. All plot points with Carl are just baffling. One might also question the consequences of the ever-late George missing a game with Lewis when he's already been named the coach, but "Playing for Keeps" is riddled with sloppiness like that.

Showing some superficial charm in the middling "The Ugly Truth" and the noxious "The Bounty Hunter," Gerard Butler seems to have a charismatic, ruggedly handsome leading man in him somewhere but without a good script to support him. As George, he's mostly empathetic and appealing. When he played pro soccer, George "used to get more ass than a toilet seat"; he's still a smoothie but has cleaned up his act somewhat. As The One That Got Away, Jessica Biel resembles a real person and not a complete shrew, but her character is terminally bland. Why should we root for George and Stacie to get back together when she seems to have her life together? As Denise, a former radio personality who uses her connections to get George's attention, Catherine Zeta-Jones engages in some heavy petting with co-star Butler and looks chic and sultry doing it. The wonderful Judy Greer flounders in a nothing role as the brittle, divorced Barb, who's prone to meltdowns and turns into a giggling idiot, stalking George one night to sleep with him. Finally, there's Uma Thurman, squandered in a role so beneath her as Carl's wife, Patti, who (in an allegedly comedic attempt at "wacky hijinks") ends up in George's landlord's bed by accident to seduce him in lingerie.

For a rom-com, the romance is insipid and the comedy is flat-footed. The final scenes can be predictable as long as they provoke an emotional response, but instead they're synthetic, treacly, and apathetic, while treating George and Stacie as selfish and illogical. A formulaic, bare-minimum piffle with attractive movie stars for a distraction, "Playing for Keeps" is a harmless way to pass the time, but it'd be more fit for your living room on the ABC Family network. Or, read a book instead.

Grade: C - 

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