, Newburyport, MA


December 7, 2012

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


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.

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