(by Dustin Putman
There is a lot of driving up to houses and backing out of driveways in "Playing for Keeps" - so many scenes of this, in fact, that it would make for a downright perilous drinking game. Perhaps all of these establishing shots call attention to themselves because the film, an acceptable but very slim romantic comedy, is so predictable that there is little else to focus on or think about during its 106-minute running time. Director Gabriele Muccino (2008's "Seven Pounds") and screenwriter Robbie Fox (1993's "So I Married an Axe Murderer") earn a few grace points for their mostly pleasing ensemble cast and not too much dumbing-down when it comes to the treatment of the characters, but these things can only go so far when everything else feels as immensely familiar as it does. Article continues below
George Dryer (Gerard Butler) used to be a professional soccer player at the top of his game, but ever since his retirement in 2005 he's had a tough time moving on to the next phase of his life. Low on funds but determined to be in 8-year-old son Lewis' (Noah Lomax) life, he has moved into a guest house in Virginia and begun sharing custody with ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel). His hope is to get a job as a sportscaster, but in the meantime he agrees to coach Lewis' downtrodden soccer team. Helped by a guy who knows all there is to know about the game, the kids begin to improve. In turn, several of their mothers—the recently divorced Barb (Judy Greer); former sportscaster Denise (Catherine Zeta-Jones); cheated-upon trophy wife Patti (Uma Thurman) - take increased interest in the hunky George. For a man used to having women throw themselves at him, George wants to turn the page and finally grow up. Still in love with Stacie, it takes the announcement of her engagement to Matt (James Tupper) for him to fully realize just what it is he's lost.
Because of how clear it is that Stacie is the only woman George deeply cares about, there is never any question where "Playing for Keeps" is going. Thus, the various other ladies swarming around him throughout are used primarily to help bide time. If the roles are thankless ones, at least the performers give them some added verve. Judy Greer (2012's "Jeff, Who Lives at Home"), a queen at turning smaller parts into sometimes the most colorful one around, earns the majority of laughs in the film as the emotionally fragile Barb. Prone to breaking down and crying at a moment's notice, she wants to know that she is still desirable, and that is exactly the thing George gives her when she most needs it. As Denise, who offers to help George with an audition tape in hopes of receiving benefits of her own, Catherine Zeta-Jones (2012's "Rock of Ages") makes sure to keep her character from becoming a one-note shrew. When her advances are turned down, her reaction is refreshingly even-keeled. Uma Thurman (2011's "Ceremony") is less assuredly handled as Patti, whose subplot hits a brick wall and promptly disappears. As her overbearing husband Carl, Dennis Quaid (2012's "What to Expect When You're Expecting") has the misfortune of portraying a grating man. He does it well, though, because Quaid is every bit as grating in his scenes.
The core of the story is between George, son Lewis, and the one that got away, Stacie. Gerard Butler (2010's "The Bounty Hunter") is a sympathetic George, exceedingly rugged and good-looking but not cocky about it. Tired of letting people down, George wants to prove to Lewis that he actively wants to be in his life. Stacie appreciates this - it's nice to see an ex-wife on film who isn't quite the caricatured harpy one would expect - but also is wary about him following through. It was the constant disappointments, after all, that led to the dissolution of their marriage. Nevertheless, Stacie's existing feelings for George aren't hidden very far under the surface. Jessica Biel (2012's "Hitchcock") is very good in the part, her Stacie torn between wanting to protect Lewis' feelings and second-guessing whether or not what's best for him now might be the man she had to walk away from years before. "Does he make you laugh, Stacie?" George asks her about her fiancé Matt. While she tries to figure that out, she proceeds with wedding plans. Maybe the saddest scene is one where George tracks Stacie down at her bridal gown fitting, and she's there all alone. Does she not have any friends or family to go along with her for such a would-be special occasion?
As "Playing for Keeps" works out its romantic complications, checking off boxes of hoary convention as it goes - yes, there's a second break-up, a reconciliation, and the old dialogue chestnut, "It's not what it looks like," uttered - George continues to drive up to houses and back out of driveways as if his life depended on it. One supposes this must happen a lot when you are sharing custody of a child and arriving home to find women waiting by your pad at all hours of the night, but it's still amusing to consider just how often these things occur. When George and Stacie finally get together at the end - seriously, if this is considered a spoiler, you haven't seen many romantic comedies - it feels well-earned, but also at the inconsiderate expense of Matt, who has just been dumped and must now watch from the house as Lewis, Stacie, and the man who just stole her away from him cheerfully play soccer together in his front yard. Maybe George and Stacie still need to learn a little tact after all.