‘Playing For Keeps’: Gerard Butler and Jessica Biel Strike Out in this Sports-Themed Rom-Com (MOVIE REVIEW)

'Playing For Keeps'
Gerard Butler admits there are similarities to his character.
6There was a time when Gerard Butler could have been a movie star, but then he decided instead to act in films like Playing For Keeps.

The guy who once played the title character in The Phantom of the Opera and King Leonidas in 300 somehow became the go-to-guy in terrible romantic comedies, undermining virtually all of his real charisma and talent in lieu of the fleeting appeal of his gruff manliness and a semi-irresistible Scottish accent.

And like a final nail in the coffin of his “real” acting career, Playing For Keeps unfolds like some kind of metaphorical deconstruction of his charms: a meandering, formulaic look at a former sports star confronted by an uncertain future as he continues to exploit the superficial things the world still seems to want from him.

Butler plays George, a soccer star who moves to Virgina to be close to his ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel) and son Lewis (Noah Lomax) after squandering his fortunes. Reduced to selling his trophies and other sports keepsakes in order to make ends meet, George dreams of a job as a sportscaster while keeping an eye on Lewis’ own athletic aspirations.

But after he reluctantly agrees to coach the kid’s soccer team, George finds his prospects improving: not only does he attract the attention of several local women (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Uma Thurman and Judy Greer) looking for an escape from suburban motherhood, but lands a chance to become an ESPN anchor. But when Stacie announces plans to marry her new boyfriend, George is forced to decide whether he will close that chapter of his life and explore a new career path in another city, or stay in the lives of the two people who mean the most to him.

The biggest problem with Playing For Keeps is that it has absolutely no idea what kind of movie it wants to be. Is it a coming-of-age story for 40 year olds? A tender story about a father reconnecting with his son? A romantic portrait of two people who love one another but have trouble finding the right time to make a relationship work? Or a sex farce where an aging charmer regains his mojo de-pantsing all of the soccer moms in a Virginia suburb?

Certainly a movie can contain multiple threads, but they need to be related by something more significant than just the people acting them out. Notwithstanding the fact that even for Gerard Butler, the women in the film improbably throw themselves at him, the various scenes of seduction – or hooking up, which is more accurate – reinforce only one sad theme: all of the characters’ lives are painfully empty. Otherwise, George’s life unfolds in a series of mostly-unrelated vignettes that languish in purposeless self-indulgence, at least until the film decides to pay off his midlife crisis in the most clichéd way possible.

As much as I like Jessica Biel and think the work she’s doing these days – even in this – is really solid, the female roles she’s offered are really just kind of shameful. Stacie exists to remind George throughout the movie that he’s a screwup, and then to be a reflection, and a reward, for his self-improvement. That Biel sheds some convincing tears for a relationship that her character is always better than is a testament to her commitment to the material.

But ultimately, the movie plays just a weird tribute to Gerard Butler as a sex symbol, an unironic celebration of the qualities that helped him retain stardom – and, in the end, an escapist fantasy that suggests his good looks and accent are all he needs. Butler isn’t bad in the film per se, but he contributes nothing but empty verisimilitude, and seems uninterested in seeing the character grow or change.

As a result, so are we, making Playing For Keeps not just a redundant exercise in rom-com wish-fulfillment, but the kind of experience that provokes the exact kind of life-changing epiphany that its characters never enjoy: if we stop watching movies like this, maybe they will stop making them. There’s no reason Gerard Butler shouldn’t have a flourishing career, but it should be with material that challenges him — and hopefully, us as well.

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