By: Addison Wylie
Gerard Butler needs that “right” vehicle. He’s shown that he has a striking presence when he’s battling Persians and kicking messengers down wells in 300, but the actor has yet to play a charming post-300 role.
The only references I have to cite are the awful comedies The Bounty Hunter and The Ugly Truth. Butler tried way too hard to get laughs while working with scripts that were MIA already and had a sexist undertone.
In Playing For Keeps, it feels as if Butler is finally relaxing. Instead of digging around through the material, finding a humorous detail, and then trying to work the dud into comedic gold, he’s letting the material come to him.
Butler plays George, an ex-soccer player and a schlub who’s trying to reconnect with his son while also striving to become an on-screen sports reporter. After witnessing the neglect and disinterest his son’s soccer coach gives off, George decides to lend a hand during a practice.
He makes such an amiable impression that parents want him to take over. It’s on this team where he finds a connection with his son while also being able to partake in a passion that left years ago.
Butler is as charming as ever and works well with the young actors. His tips and game speeches are delivered as if he’s coaching David Beckham; but, not in an obvious, cutesy way.
It’s during these scenes where Butler gets laughs. Whether he’s coaching his team or figuring out how to communicate with the ridiculous parents, his role as “the straight man” pays off. For the first time in years, we’re enjoying a character helmed by Butler.
However, I can’t say the same for the supporting cast. At first, the outrageous personalities of Dennis Quaid, Uma Thurman, and Judy Greer stand-out as great comedic beats, but soon we find out what their characters are all about – nothing much.
Quaid is having a blast playing a sleezeball, but he often crosses from being a likeable train-wreck to being an annoying provoker. His final scene with Butler is embarrassing as the two take part in a mishandled clash.
What’s troubling about the female characters are how they’re all dumbfoundedly underwritten. Every single woman featured in the movie either wants a piece of Butler – practically throwing themselves at the hunk – or they’re an uptight stereotype. There’s not one single female character with an interesting voice or a powerful presence. They’re all bubbly and shallow and, unfortunately, a talented cast have been stuck with these characatures.
Greer is an early scene-stealer but her character is given nowhere to grow from there, except for a conclusion that seems more like an afterthought than serious character development.
Catherine Zeta-Jones’ role as Denise shows glimmers of a character we can root for, and she’s actually quite fun at first as a Mom with a crush. However, like Greer, she’s kept one-dimensional and is reduced to flirtatious grinning.
Playing For Keeps is a romantic comedy that isn’t completely soaking in sappiness from a tired formula – at least for the first bit. It was actually rather refreshing seeing something that could’ve taken a normal route but instead rose above the expectations.
However, as more characters get more screen time and the story adds more peaks and valleys, the once sharp script turns into something we’ve all seen before.
And, what about the husbands? I won’t say who, but not only are some of the women written poorly, but they aren’t faithful either. One storyline literally ends with one of the husbands crying as he’s left heartbroken. And, we never see him again.
I was reminded of Michael Showalter’s The Baxter, a film that follows this type of man who finds himself in this abrupt circumstance. If you plan to watch Playing For Keeps, follow it up with Showalter’s The Baxter. That way, everyone gets a happy ending. Even you.