NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 7, 2012

'Playing for Keeps': Don't stop me if you've heard this one before

By Colin Covert
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

---- — “Playing for Keeps” is a perfectly pleasant romantic comedy completely lacking in novelty. This will leave many viewers unengaged, but may not be a disadvantage for its core audience.

Genre fans, like children, love to hear their favorite stories again and again. They will find a comforting familiarity in this well-worn tale of a sensitive, immature hunk tamed by the love of — but I dare not reveal the ending.

Gerard Butler stars as a former soccer star, now broke, divorced, and trying to learn how to co-parent his young son. When we meet him, he is shooting an audition tape for a job as a TV sportscaster. In a nice visual joke, the next shot shows us that while he’s scrubbed and presentable from the waist up, he’s not ready for prime time underneath. This pretty much sums up his personality, too.

Jessica Biel is his ex, a levelheaded, capable type. Judy Greer, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Uma Thurman are soccer moms who fling themselves at the hunky Butler when he signs on to coach his son’s team. Call them Flighty, Flinty and Flirty.

Greer is winningly ditsy, alternately melting into tears and throwing her arms around the befuddled Scotsman. Zeta-Jones, a former ESPN broadcaster herself, offers to get his tape to the right people in exchange for such services as an unattached woman of healthy appetites might deem appropriate. Thurman plays the neglected wife of obnoxious local moneybags Dennis Quaid, a hale fellow who befriends Butler with so many attaboy slugs on the shoulder their relationship suggests a one-sided boxing match.

Quaid passes Butler fat envelopes of cash “to fund the team and buy uniforms, y’know.” Of course, if Coach can see putting Quaid’s son at goalie and give his daughter the microphone to sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” he wouldn’t mind. Quaid’s generosity has its limits. He informs Butler that he’s violently jealous and has hired detectives to follow his wife. This is known as foreshadowing.

The film is a bit better than standard, and not bereft of laughs. Quaid plays a guy who lives on maximum overdrive without overacting beyond what the character calls for. Greer pivots between coquette and weepy waterworks so fast it’s like watching a magic trick. Zeta-Jones’ nickel-plated vamp is well within her comfort zone. Thurman brings a vaguely alcoholic unsteadiness to her bored housewife, flinging herself at Butler as if launched from a catapult. The cartoonish flattening of the female characters didn’t seem to bother anyone in the predominantly female audience I saw the film with, any more than Quaid’s brash jerk offended the men. They exist only as foils for the leading actors, hurdles to be dealt with before the uplifting conclusion the formula requires.

Though Butler, who also produced the film, is onscreen in almost every scene, Biel fares better, delivering the truest performance of her career. Butler’s character is a flat, well-meaning sort who can’t help it that women are attracted to him by electromagnetic force. Rather than feeling reinvigorated by their interest, he deals with their advances sheepishly, bedding them as if trysts were as accidental and commonplace as parking lot fender benders. By contrast, there’s a touching vulnerability in Biel’s work as she struggles to reconcile her emotional ties to the man she once loved with her need to move on.

She may be helped here by director Gabriele Muccino, who made the moving Will Smith drama “The Pursuit of Happyness.” Muccino directs comedy with a distinct lack of zing, but with his leading actress’ help he nails the affecting dramatic undertones.