Pretend you’re in charge of setting the schedule for your studio’s film releases. It’s a few weeks before Christmas and the weekend before The Hobbit comes out. Meanwhile, Thanksgiving blockbusters are still likely to dominate the box office. What do you do? You schedule a really bad movie, one you know can’t compete. Playing for Keeps, released during a scheduling dead zone not only couldn’t compete, it couldn’t even sustain a coherent plot.
In Playing for Keeps, former Scottish soccer star George Dryer (Gerard Butler) moves Virginia to be near his son, Lewis (Noah Lomax). Though he can barely make ends meet and is struggling to start a career as a sportscaster, George hopes he can at least repair his relationship with his son and his mother, Stacie (Jessica Beil). The pair had a whirlwind romance when he was at the top of his game and she was a young twenty-something backpacking through Europe, but when she grew up and he couldn’t provide fidelity or stability, the pair split. While Stacie plans her wedding to Matt (James Tupper), George gets roped into coaching Lewis’s soccer team. Thanks to his obvious skills and charm, the kids love George, but so do the soccer moms. He quickly ends up in tangled affairs with single mom Barb (Judy Greer), former sportscaster Denise (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and Patti (Uma Thurman), who is unhappily married to sociopathic Carl (Dennis Quaid). Meanwhile, Carl befriends George, sensing an opportunity to capitalize on a famous friend. Will George get his family back or will he be brought down by his apparent inability to make adult choices?
The biggest problem with Playing for Keeps is that the film seems trapped between three different genres. At times it works as a sports movie, at others it bleakly tries at romantic comedy, and still others it feels like a raunchy comedy. These genres can and have been blended successfully, but instead of working together, the different elements of the plot work against each other so the film is just disjointed and poorly written. Then, within those elements themselves the writing is weak. For example, there are plenty of opportunities for cute moments with soccer team. The fact that they don’t know how to play the game and none of them seems to get any attention from their fathers could have set the stage for a sports comedy a la Little Giants or The Mighty Ducks. Instead, the film focuses on the stupid, sexistly written soccer moms in a pretty disgusting fashion. In the few moments that the film tries humor with the children, it just takes things too far, showing a total lack of comedic timing. In one scene, George tries to suggest that the kids practice at home with a parent or sister and one little girl replies, “Coach I had a sister, but she died.” George looks at her not knowing what to do until the girl, seemingly unbothered, continues, “but I have a brother; does that work?” It wasn’t a super funny moment but it worked well enough until every kid on the team started chiming in with weird overshares like “my dad sleeps in the maid’s room and my mom cries at night.” It’s “let’s laugh at suburban problems” comedy at its worst and least humorous. On top of all that, there’s also a downright creepy and poorly executed subplot in which George’s landlord (Iqbal Theba) voyeuristically watches the string of team moms come to George’s door and tries to figure out how he gets so many beautiful women. It’s gross and is the purest embodiment of the movie’s misogyny.
With all this bad writing, it shouldn’t be surprising that the acting is bad too. The lead trio of Butler, Beil, and Lomax are good enough, considering how flat their characters are. The supporting cast—a star studded ensemble—provides a terrible backdrop, though. The movie’s a waste of their talent, but worse, they’re actually terrible in it. Uma Thurman’s performance was cringe-worthy and tone-deaf. Dennis Quaid, who starred in my other worst movie of the year, The Words, overacted so manically he made a bad character worse. Catherine Zeta-Jones was okay and gorgeous as always, but she just seemed bored with the whole thing.
For an incredibly weak plot, weirdly manic performances, and an overall lack of quality, I rate Playing for Keeps. 1/5 stars.
Playing for Keeps was written by Robbie Fox and directed by Gabriele Muccio. It runs 105 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some sexual situations, language and a brief intense image.
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