Film Review: Playing for Keeps

Bland romantic comedy is the cinematic equivalent of processed food.

Try explaining the message in Playing for Keeps to someone from the ranks of the longtime unemployed, and see how it goes. A broke, retired soccer player (Gerard Butler) starts coaching his son’s soccer team. Suddenly, all the soccer moms are falling for him, he has a shot at winning back his ex-wife, and the networking with the other parents brings hope of a job as a sportscaster. He also coaches the team straight to the championships, but in a movie where there’s so much going for its lead character, winning the big game is almost an afterthought. It’s all a little too easy, a little too glossy, and it’s doubtful that audiences will fall for it.

Playing for Keeps occupies that strange purgatory between reality and fantasy. Under another hand, the events could be reworked into a reality-bound black comedy, along the lines of a Silver Linings Playbook or The Descendants. With a script by Robbie Fox and under the direction of Gabriele Muccino, it’s an aspirational romantic comedy. If only we all could be former football stars who just need to volunteer a bit to get our lives back in order. And what better milieu to do it than a Virginia suburb where everyone is perfectly coiffed, drives a convertible (I counted three), and has faux-witty things to say?

With sputters along the way, Butler’s character reconnects with his nine-year-old son (the charmingly freckled Noah Lomax) by doing things like letting him grasp the wheel of his friend’s Ferrari. His former wife (Jessica Biel, who hasn’t looked this demure since “7th Heaven”) is now planning a wedding with another man. At first, Butler’s character seems too distracted fending off the soccer moms to focus on winning his wife back, but once he starts wooing her, there’s little doubt they will end up back together.

Romantic comedies normally have laugh-out-loud moments, but here setup after setup falls flat. Judy Greer, normally so head-turning in her supporting roles, is completely wasted, turning in a boring performance as a soccer mom who constantly bursts into tears about her divorce. Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the “hot, well-connected” soccer mom, and Uma Thurman as the “unhappy wife” soccer mom, do better in their narrow roles. But they’re still not funny. A running gag about visitors confusing Butler’s guesthouse residence with the attached mansion at the same address should be funny, but somehow completely isn’t. The blame for that goes to Muccino, who may be better suited for sentimental fare like the incredibly successful The Pursuit of Happyness.

Playing for Keeps may distract you for 105 minutes during an in-flight movie, or provide a diverting evening when all your favorite sitcoms are on hiatus, but it’s disappointing, empty fare. Brisk editing and shimmery Hollywood lighting just make it one more forgettable addition to this year’s release slate.