MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Playing for Keeps’ is part cuddly, part vulgar, but all bad


This film image released by FilmDistrict shows, from left, Jessica Biel, Noah Lomax, and Gerard Butler in a scene from "Playing for Keeps." (AP Photo/FilmDistrict, Dale Robinette)

Playing for Keeps


1 and 1/2 out of 4 stars

Not to be confused with the coming-of-age teen drama of the same name from 1986, this "Playing for Keeps" is more of a coming-of-career-change romantic comedy. Every adult character in it with a major speaking part is already at or quickly approaching their cinematic "use-by" shelf date and everything about the movie reeks of desperation. It's hard to fathom how six (or maybe five) generally genial performers come off so patently unlikeable and collectively off-putting.

Because his name is above the title and his image gets the most space on the poster, Gerard Butler is going to get the majority of the blame for the film's almost-certain box-office failure. Butler stars as George, a once-great European soccer star who, due to an injury, needs to find other sources of income but cannot. Deeply in debt, George relocates to northern Virginia in an attempt to find work as a sportscaster while being in close proximity to his son Lewis (an impressive Noah Lomax) and his engaged-to-another-man ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel).

In a force-fit plot-point, George soon becomes the coach of Lewis' soccer team and in the process catches the eye of many metaphorically panting soccer moms and why not? He's wonderful with the kids, turns them into overnight winners, has phenomenal facial stubble and looks great in shorts.

Due to its mercifully brief 106 minute running time, screenwriter Robbie Fox quickly narrows down the possible field to three. Redhead Barb (Judy Greer) all but throws herself at George and might have a real chance of landing him if she didn't veer from gratingly perky to uncontrollably sobbing in the blink of an eye.

At first glance, brunette Denise (Catherine Zeta-Jones) seems to be George's best option as she is a recently retired sportscaster with connections who can provide him an inside track while not being too pushy. Initially the demure and proper blonde Patti (Uma Thurman) shows no interest in bedding George but more than makes up for it later on with behavior that at best is lurid and at worst, psychotic and borderline black widow.

The big wild card is not a woman but instead Patti's philandering husband Carl (Dennis Quaid). In this scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel performance, Quaid plays Carl as a loud-mouthed, back-slapping, money-flashing, heavy-drinking, obnoxious rich dude who thinks his wealth can compensate for his considerable social ills. His overly friendly approach to George comes with heavy-duty homoerotic overtones and a slimy, tit-for-tat form of barter. As low as he is on the Hollywood food chain, Quaid is still many rungs above this type of embarrassing and possibly career-ending choice in roles. It's beyond painful to watch.

Quality issues aside, it's difficult to discern the target audience for "Playing for Keeps." Of the four women, only Stacie comes across as well-adjusted. Her maternal concern for Lewis is strong and she's worried George could remain an MIA father figure. But all of that goes out the window with an 11th-hour plot twist that negates any of her established goodwill.

Because the subplot involving George and Lewis takes up at least half of the running time and is intended to be dramatically touching (which it sometimes is), the movie might be perceived as family-friendly (which it certainly is not). The sexual content is brief and played down but is frank and suggestive enough to fully earn the PG-13 rating, but there will be few people over 13 and under 50 that will have much interest in anything this movie has to say.

"Playing for Keeps" is two movies fighting with each other. The lukewarm and semi-cuddly parts go toe-to-toe with the not-quite ribald non-humor and each cancels the other out. What you're left with is a colossal waste of time and money and zero return on your emotional investment. (FilmDistrict/Millennium)