I’ll cut to the chase in my description of Playing for Keeps right away. It’s simply “Kicking & Screaming” with sex — and without Will Ferrell (if the two are mutually exclusive). It also proves that if you are Gerard Butler and arrive in town to coach a child’s soccer team, several deranged women will come out of the woodwork and demand to sleep with you, even though you still have designs on the one that got away.
Okay, that’s about it. Yes, I realize as a so-called professional critic I have to delve deeper into the nuances and specifics of the motion picture, but one cannot help if there are no such qualities. Playing for Keeps is as shallow as a pie plate and just as meaningless (well, except for the fact a pie plate actually has a purpose).
From director Gabriele Muccino (“The Pursuit of Happyness,” “Seven Pounds“) and screenwriter Robbie Fox (“So I Married an Axe Murderer“), Playing For Keeps tells the tale of a down-and-out former soccer player, George (Butler), who does a bunch of things in an opening montage that few could comprehend or even care less about. Let’s face it, international soccer may be beloved throughout the rest of the world, but American audiences take to it like they did rugby when “Invictus” came out — they don’t. That’s why the film constantly mentions David Beckham because he is the sport’s only true superstar ANYONE can relate to.
Now, years later, he is in Virgina trying to get his life back together and submitting sportscaster demo tapes to local news affiliates. There’s not a lot of backstory as to how and why he came back, except his ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel, “Total Recall“) and son, Lewis (Noah Lomax, “The Middle.” TV series) are living there with her boyfriend, the inconsequential Matt (James Tupper, “Mr. Popper’s Penguins“).
I write “inconsequential” because in movies like this, the boyfriend, no matter how sweet, nice or providing he may be, it’s always about the deadbeat genetic father (see “Liar Liar” and other films for example).
Seeing that his son’s soccer coach seems too busy to care (he’s constantly talking on a cell phone and telling the kids to kick the ball “with their toes”), George takes it upon himself to instruct the children in goal-scoring. And, since after all he was a former international star and is, well, Gerard Butler, naturally all of the soccer moms (and a few dads) immediately gravitate to him, including the rich but unloved Patti (former Academy Award nominee Uma Thurman, “Pulp Fiction“), former sportscaster Denise (Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones, “Chicago“) and the horribly pathetic Barb (Judy Greer, “Californication” TV series, in a most embarrassing effort; in fact, no one in this production gives a memorable or even competent performance).
Oh yeah, Patti’s philandering husband, Carl (Dennis Quaid, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”), makes an appearance to give George thousands of dollars and a Ferrari for seemingly no reason at all. Despite all of this, we’re still supposed to feel sorry for the scruffy bum who wants Stacie back and is trying to develop a relationship with his 9-year old boy. That part is especially difficult because little Noah Lomax wears a single facial expression throughout — a dour sad-sack pout that would make even the most loving dad look elsewhere for biological gratification. The chemistry between George and Stacie is also non-existent and we’re suppose to side with them simply because it is in the script.
There are also meaningless subplots about a Mideastern landlord trying to collect his rent and ESPN attempting to increase its soccer coverage. It all amounts to Playing for Keeps becoming a meaningless bore after a short while and, along with “Chasing Mavericks,” it is another film where Butler shows off his great body and good looks, but offers nothing even remotely interesting or memorable under the surface.