Friday, December 7, 2012

Playing for Keeps: Toss it back

Playing for Keeps (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, for profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang

Former soccer star George Dryer, stalled in the well-worn rut of an arrested adolescent, can’t figure out what to be when he grows up.

The same can be said of this film.

An echo of happier times: Young Lewis (Noah Lomax, center) is delighted to see that
his divorced parents, Stacie (Jessica Biel) and George (Gerard Butler), still seem to
enjoy each other's company. And, yes, George definitely is trying to woo Stacie
back ... although she insists that would be a waste of time. 
Rarely have so many top-flight supporting actors been handed such poorly defined roles, and given nothing to do with them. Robbie Fox’s screenplay is a mess; even when the dialogue occasionally sparkles, and genuine chemistry ignites as it should in a romantic comedy, a moment’s thought reveals that logic and continuity are all over the map, if not absent entirely.

We probably shouldn’t expect more; Fox made his Hollywood rep in the early 1990s with low-low-lowbrow Mike Myers and Pauly Shore comedies such as So I Married an Axe Murderer and In the Army Now. Following the latter, Fox went off the grid for almost two decades until reappearing with Playing for Keeps.

Perhaps he should have waited longer, to further refine his craft.

In fairness, though, Fox can shoulder only part of the blame. Director Gabriele Muccino is equally at fault, bringing little to this party beyond some solid father/son scenes between Gerard Butler and Noah Lomax.

After establishing a solid reputation in his native Italy, with well-received rom-coms such as 2001’s The Last Kiss, Muccino made a splash in the States when he teamed with Will Smith for 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness. Their next project, however, was a ghastly miscalculation; Seven Pounds was the coal in 2008’s Christmas stocking, with its unsettling blend of fairy tale and real-world angst, all building to a thoroughly unpleasant conclusion that was intended to be uplifting.

Playing for Keeps has similar problems. We want to like these characters, and we’re clearly intended to ... but damn, it sure is difficult. Once again, Muccino’s desire for a sparkling holiday cracker — he seems to like releasing his films in December — has fizzled.

Dryer (Butler) has made a mess of his life. Bad investments have left him bankrupt; the playboy lifestyle cost him a marriage. As the film begins, he has moved to the upscale Virginia community where his ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel) and neglected son Lewis (Lomax) have settled. They’ve been living with nice guy Matt (James Tupper) for several years, in a palatial home that suggests old-world money. Or some high-profile job on Matt’s part.

Not that we ever learn such details. Fox apparently can’t be bothered to explain Matt’s apparent wealth.

Anyway, George’s primary goal is to re-connect with Lewis, in an effort to make up for lost time. The boy is willing, if wary; Stacie is encouraging, if dubious. Both have been disappointed too many times before.

With a killer Scottish accent and years of on-field experience, George hopes to keep a roof over his head by becoming a television soccer sports announcer. While that plan gestates, he faithfully attends Lewis’ soccer practices, wincing at the inattentive uselessness of the doofus parent (Sean O’Bryan) who volunteered to coach the team.

After a few frustrating sessions, unable to stand it any longer, George bounds onto the field and takes over. The existing coach hardly minds; indeed, he’s relieved. And, hey presto: Thanks to talent, physical grace and the compassion of a born teacher, George immediately becomes a hit with the kids.

And with their cougar mothers.

Let’s see ... we start with the always amusing Judy Greer, initially quite funny as Barb, an insecure divorcée who bursts into tears at inopportune moments. Then there’s the always exotic Catherine Zeta-Jones, as Denise, who dangles her own TV news career contacts as a means of drawing George into her web.

I never did figure out whether Denise was married. Not that it matters much.

Finally, we have the often miscast Uma Thurman as Patti, the alcoholic, bubble-headed wife of smarmy Carl (Dennis Quaid), a pretentious, philandering show-off who does have more money than God. Carl stuffs an envelope filled with cash into George’s hand, “for team uniforms and stuff,” and asks only that his son play goalie, and that his daughter sing the National Anthem before each game. Carl’s that kind of guy.

Carl also makes George his new best friend, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. The superficial perks — access to Carl’s gorgeous red Ferrari — are outweighed by obvious danger signals, such as close proximity to Patti, who’d love to annoy her husband by having an affair of her own. With George.

While George (poor baby!) attempts to juggle all these damaged and/or determined women, he’s also trying to demonstrate newfound maturity for Stacie’s benefit. With limited success. Even though the surprisingly tolerant Stacie clearly wants him to shape up and succeed, for their son’s benefit.

You’d think we have all the elements for a hilarious romantic comedy, perhaps on the somewhat earthy side; indeed, plenty of well-loved films have succeeded with much less. But the ingredients never blend properly, and the soufflé remains flat; Greer, Thurman, Zeta-Jones and particularly Quaid look and sound like they haven’t the faintest idea why their characters say and do stuff from one scene to the next. Character motivation isn’t merely absent; it’s on holiday with no forwarding address.

Nor can we get a bead on Stacie, despite the warmth of Biel’s performance. The actual reason for Stacie’s breakup with George remains unspoken, although the split apparently was amicable, and she still regards him kindly. Biel has the toughest acting assignment here, and she navigates often contradictory waters with grace, displaying equal amounts of compassion, vulnerability and parental anxiety.

But not even Biel can sell where Stacie is forced to go in this story’s third act. I’m not sure anybody could; it makes no sense.

If Playing for Keeps does draw an audience, Butler will deserve the applause. He’s hunky, adorable and easy on the eyes, and let’s face it: That Scottish accent is pure gold. Butler also delivers regret and frustration quite well. George doesn’t need anybody to criticize him; he’s hardest on himself, but the old patterns are hard to break.

Butler’s best moments come with young Lomax, when father and son are working to improve their relationship. The boy’s freckled features are expressive and adorable; Lewis loves his father and wants things to work out, but at the same time he reacts quickly when George lets him down. The agony in Butler’s eyes, at such moments, couldn’t be more genuine. It’s a solid dynamic, and it holds our attention.

Iqbal Theba, recognized as Principal Figgins on TV’s Glee, has a brief but amusing part as George’s landlord. The various kids on Lewis’ soccer team, on the other hand, are little more than their names.

Even this film’s title is a bit off; the project went into production as Playing the Field, which makes a lot more sense. I get the impression that George’s bedroom antics with Barb, Denise and Patti might have been bawdier at one point, and then Fox and Muccino were encouraged to tone down the sex in order to snag a more family-friendly PG-13 rating. That didn’t work with Fun Size, a few months ago, and it doesn’t work here.

If you want the goofy raunch of a ribald French sex farce, you’ve gotta embrace it; halfway measures simply don’t play. Adding a disappointed little boy and other real-world estranged family dynamics also doesn’t play.

In a nutshell, Playing for Keeps doesn’t play.

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