To bring you up to speed on sentimental sports-centric weepies circa Oscar season 2012, Clint Eastwood’s withered major league scout may have had trouble with the curve, but Gerard Butler’s former soccer star can still bend bored suburban cougars like Beckham. In Playing for Keeps, Butler turns on the sensitive swagger as George Dryer, a legend whose gravy train has dried up, leaving him with a string of debt and weekend custody of Lewis (Noah Lomax), the withdrawn young boy who subconsciously yearns for his father to reunite with Stacie (Jessica Biel), George’s estranged ex. While chasing his last-resort dream of parlaying his cachet into a gig as a sportscaster, George somewhat belatedly tries to ingratiate himself with his skeptical ex-family by coaching Lewis’s junior soccer team, a gang of kids that, for 10 seconds, the movie seems to be positioning as an upper-class Bad News Bears before realizing it would rather focus on their selfish parents.
Blessed with too much disposable income and too little time to do anything other than answer their urgent cellphone calls to ensure the former keeps flowing, each parent sees in George the chance to nuzzle up to a celebrity. He may be a has-been, but he still thrills the likes of Carl (Dennis Quaid), a wheeler and dealer who constantly looks on the verge of a jealous stroke; Patti (Uma Thurman), his champagne-swilling trophy wife whose flirtations with younger, more attractive lunkheads have evidently left a trail of assaulted would-be paramours; Barb (Judy Greer), an eggshell-fragile divorcee who practically exhales tears of preemptive rejection; and Denise (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a bombshell ex-sportscaster whose, um, needs may just hold the key to jumpstarting George’s future career. Each and every one of these figures isn’t treated as characters so much as landmines in George’s path toward reconciliation. Screenwriter Robbie Fox, whose last major credit was 1993’s So I Married an Axe Murderer, still clearly has an axe to grind with housewives, and none are given the dignity the film generously heaps on poor, recalcitrant womanizer George, who would clearly be able to get his life back on track if it weren’t for all those manicured nails dipping for gold behind his 34-inch belt.
At the same time, director Gabriele Muccino, who admittedly did the world the favor of exposing Will Smith’s most self-serving impulses with The Pursuit of Happyness and Seven Pounds, accentuates Fox’s double standard by imposing a hierarchy on George’s temptations. Having given Greer a pity screw and let Zeta-Jones wrap those Entrapment legs around his neck, Muccino insists the audience take George at face value when he assures Stacie—while she’s at the final fitting for the dress she intends to wear while marrying Mr. Safe Choice, like, tomorrow—that she was always the only one for him. Biel’s constant exasperation with the situation elevates her above the mire, but Playing for Keeps (which went into production under the title Playing the Field, and the disparity between the two says everything about the movie’s emotional dissonance you need to know) is knee deep in “don’t hate the player, hate the game” territory, no more so than when George nearly loses it all in the 11th hour because of the one woman he didn’t fuck.