‘I’ ON CULTURE
Putting a good romantic comedy up against the big films that come out at the end of the year, ones like Argo, Lincoln, Les Misérables, etc., probably seemed like a brilliant scheduling idea to the producers of Playing for Keeps. The problem is that it is not good, is barely romantic, and is not particularly funny. In short, it is a stinker! Miss it.
The basic plot revolves around George (Gerard Butler), an overage former soccer player who, his career over, decides he wants to reconnect with the ex-wife and son he left behind. Ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel) has decided that a rich man with not much personality who stays at home (James Tupper) is better husband material than a guy who runs around in shorts all over Europe. George decides to bond with son Lewis (Noah Lomax) by coaching his soccer team.
As soon as that happens, a whole group of neighborhood women decide he’s just the perfect way to improve their lives, and three of them (Judy Greer, Uma Thurman and Catherine Zeta-Jones) actually chase him down shamelessly. Of course, since this is an American movie, all George wants to do is get back together with his ex, which manages to happen in a way that totally goes against almost every bit of reality in the universe.
The first major problem of this film is that the plot is ridiculous. Parts of the script seem written mainly to try for a few laughs even if they have nothing at all to do with furthering the story. There is a far-too-long subplot in which Carl (Dennis Quaid), the richest man in town and married to Thurman, tries to bribe George to let his son play goalie. This provides a chance for George to teach his far-too-young son to drive, using Carl’s Ferrari as the vehicle. I bet every reader can figure out what will happen to the car. And George’s landlord (Glee’s Iqbal Theba) seems to make an appearance so that fun can be made of people with interesting accents.
It does not help at all that Butler has the same light and easy flair for comedy that we came to know and love in John Wayne and Charles Bronson. He is big and manly but just does not have the touch. That might not have mattered if he had only been the straight man for the comedy, surrounded by a lot of funny people. But the women were not funny, either. Greer, Thurman and Zeta-Jones came across as more pathetic than anything else. Their characters seemingly exist mostly in a state of boredom. They are soccer moms, but instead of worrying about their kids, they seem interested only in bedding a man who could provide nothing but cheap thrills, while ignoring the damage they might be doing to their families.
Biel never has a chance to make sense of her character. Presumably, she finds George so appealing that she is ready to give up on the life she had been making herself for years, and in almost no time at all. Since her fiancé is almost a cardboard cutout of a character, she seems like a woman with extraordinarily low standards. Quaid comes across as if he were on drugs for his entire appearance.
We have to like the lead characters in romantic comedies. Of course, they have to have flaws. Perfect people are boring. But they have to be lovable. You need people who fall in love with each other’s flaws, and in the movie business, that means you need the flaws to be ones we all can relate to. Unfortunately, neither George nor Stacie has those cute, lovable flaws. He took off on her to play soccer and made enough bad deals that he’s totally broke. She’s willing to essentially get involved with someone wealthy for no apparent reason. The good romantic comedies usually create a more interesting possibility. A woman might fall for someone a bit boring if they were good or if they were getting over a loser. In this film, well, who really cares?
And that is the problem. For a romantic comedy to grab us, we want the leads to find each other and overcome the obstacles. In Playing for Keeps, I felt they could keep each other. A good cast was wasted. Miss the film; there are many better ones around this time of year.