Playing for Keeps (United States, 2012)

December 06, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Playing for Keeps Poster

Playing for Keeps is a sloppy, poorly focused comedy that wants to be about the relationship between a father and his 9-year old son but ends up being about nearly everything else. The core problem is clear: the interaction between ex-soccer star George (Gerard Butler) and his pint-sized offspring, Lewis (Noah Lomax), fails to gel. Movies about fathers or father-figures connecting with young sons can be emotionally potent, with About a Boy being a good example, but there has to be more between them than what Playing for Keeps provides. Although a lack of chemistry is part of the problem, the screenplay, credited to Robbie Fox, is more to blame.

Unwilling to let the narrative concentrate solely on George's attempts to become an important part of Lewis' life, we're subjected to tangents that go nowhere and offer little in the way of a substantive comedic or dramatic payoff. One such subplot, which features Dennis Quaid as a Type A businessman with anger management issues, is most effective at making us feel sorry that Quaid has fallen far enough to accept a role like this. Similarly, Judy Greer is left foundering in the part of a lonely single mom who is desperate for any shred of human connection.

The movie opens with a montage that identifies George as a one-time soccer great whose on-field prowess and international reputation were second only to David Beckham. But age caught up with George in the late '00s and he retired. He lost his fortune in a series of bad business ventures and now lives in a rented guest house in Virginia that allows him to be close to his ex, Stacie (Jessica Biel), and his son, Lewis. A series of coincidences leads to George teaching Lewis' peewee soccer team. That provides opportunities for a womanizer like George to spend some quality time with the soccer moms - Greer, Uma Thurman, and Catherine Zeta-Jones - but what he really wants is a job as a sports anchor and a chance to be reunited with Stacie and Lewis. The clock is ticking, however, as Stacie's wedding to boyfriend Matt (James Tupper) is fast approaching.

The first half of Playing for Keeps stays mostly on point in its attempts to forge some kind of relationship between George and Lewis. It presents George as charismatic and self-absorbed, with the latter quality needing to be obliterated in order for George to be able to reach Lewis. The kid is not terribly well developed: he's a nine-year old cardboard cut-out whose sole characteristic is his neediness. During its final 40 minutes, the movie becomes more about the unfinished romance between George and Stacie. Biel, who's only in a handful of early scenes, is omnipresent past the halfway point and Playing for Keeps suddenly becomes less about the father/son relationship and more of a traditional romantic comedy.

The cast is "medium profile," with actresses in Zeta-Jones and Thurman who were A-listers (or close to it) fifteen years ago but are now trying to keep alive careers (although, to be fair, Zeta-Jones took time off to raise a family). Gerard Butler, who has shown himself to be a solid serious actor (and whose defining role will forever be that of King Leonidas in 300), continues to insist on doing movies he can sleepwalk through. At least Jessica Biel is a better choice as a leading lady than Jennifer Aniston or Katherine Heigl, although it would have helped if the movie had committed more fully to the romance rather than cramming the entire thing into less than an hour.

Why Playing for Keeps is being released in the heart of awards season rather than awaiting the wasteland of February/March is anyone's guess. The film is unlikely to attract much interest or attention. Although not horrible in the way that truly bad films are horrible, it doesn't do much right. It's inert and forgettable with too little buoyancy to keep it afloat with so many bigger and more substantive motion pictures surrounding it.

Playing for Keeps (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 2012-12-07
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1