'Playing for Keeps' (PG-13)

In Playing for Keeps, Gerard Butler plays George, a former superstar athlete who returns home, broke and lonely, to make peace with his ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel) and bond with his young son (Noah Lomax) by coaching the boy’s soccer team. George has a curious effect on women: They immediately want to have sex with him, but only, inexplicably, if they are women who look like Uma Thurman or Catherine Zeta-Jones or Judy Greer. The movie would have been so much funnier and engaging if more of George’s stalkers were played by true comediennes — Kristen Wiig, say, or Melissa McCarthy. Instead, George must wrangle with gorgeous, educated career women who turn into simpering gibbons in his manly presence.

And they’re persistent, too, which complicates George’s plan to patch things up with Stacie. Playing for Keeps, which was directed by Gabriel Muccino (Seven Pounds) and written by Robbie Fox (whose last credit was the Pauly Shore comedy In the Army Now), is the sort of movie made to be watched by depressed women while eating a tub of Haagen Dazs and fantasizing about meeting a man as handsome and charming and kind and impossibly perfect as George (his biggest flaw: he’s a messy housekeeper).

The film is smooth and glossy and unruffled by anything resembling reality. There isn’t a moment in the entire picture in which you will recognize an element of your own life (in one scene, George makes up with his miffed son by letting him drive a Ferrari). Just as embarrassing as the horny soccer moms is Dennis Quaid as a rich guy who throws money at all his problems and, in a small role, Iqbal Theba as George’s Pakistani landlord, who has a hilarious accent and who doesn’t love funny accents?

Playing for Keeps isn’t an evil movie like The Ugly Truth, and the movie makes fine use of Butler, who has genuine charm and is easy to like. But the plot is schematic and the situations contrived (would a grown woman really break into the home of a man she barely knows and hide in his bed, waiting for him to get home?) Yet Muccino wants you to take all this seriously, because the film treats George’s maturation and acceptance of responsibility as seriously as Spielberg treated Lincoln. Worst of all, there’s no sense of fun in the movie, no opportunity for the actresses to cut loose (Zeta-Jones in particular looks eager for something to do).

The result is an instantly forgettable time killer, something to play at the multiplex before the big holiday pictures arrive. The only thing Playing for Keeps teaches us is: Guys, forget the bars and nightclubs. Soccer moms are where the action is.


Cast: Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Judy Greer, Dennis Quaid, Noah Lomax.

Director: Gabriel Muccino.

Screenwriter: Robbie Fox.

Producers: Jonathan Mostow, Kevin Misher.

A FilmDistrict release. Running time: 106 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.