Has any actor more thoroughly wasted his 15 minutes in the Hollywood spotlight than Gerard Butler? Since he hit with 300 half a dozen years ago, he’s churned out PS I Love You, Nim’s Island, RocknRolla, The Ugly Truth, Gamer, Law Abiding Citizen, The Bounty Hunter, Machine Gun Preacher and Chasing Mavericks. (There was, admittedly, a solid supporting turn in Ralph Fiennes’ film of Coriolanus buried in there.) You may have seen a few of them–the dreadful rom-coms made some money–but did you think they were any good? Did anyone? Butler certainly looks like he should be a movie star, and he’s shown charm and sometimes some gravitas on screen (he can even sing, as in his pre-300 turn as The Phantom of the Opera). Is it really possible that these were the best projects Butler was offered in the more than half-decade after 300 became a $456M worldwide smash, or does he desperately need better representatives who can tell a good script from a putrid one?
Butler’s latest woeful effort is Playing for Keeps, set loose in theatres during that early December period when no one goes to the movies, in the hope that people desperate for new product will sit through anything. Butler plays George Dryer, a former professional soccer player now too old to play and down on his luck. He wants to become a sportscaster, but meanwhile moves nearer to ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel) and son Lewis (Noah Lomax), to be part of their lives before Stacie remarries the nice but dull Matt (James Tupper). George takes a job coaching Lewis’ pee-wee soccer team and instantly becomes catnip to every mother in town with a functioning libido, including lascivious Barb (Judy Greer), Denise (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who used to be a sportscaster herself, and Patti (Uma Thurman), who’s married to local rich guy Carl (Dennis Quaid).
Playing For Keeps wants to be both a sex farce and a soapy, traditionalist exercise in teaching George (and us) that nothing could be more important than the preservation of the nuclear family. There was a time when Rock Hudson (or more likely Dick Van Dyke) might have played the lead, with Elke Sommer as one of the temptresses and Natalie Wood as the ex. Now it feels like a made-for-Hallmark-Channel production projected on a big screen. Director Gabriele Muccino’s previous American movies are the Will Smith earnest-fests The Pursuit of Happyness and Seven Pounds, and the script is by Robbie Fox, whose last credit was So I Married An Axe Murderer 20 years ago (and we can safely assume Mike Myers was responsible for a great deal of that one); neither has any feel or interest in sensuousness or emotional complexity.
Watching this thing, one mostly feels sorry for the actresses, who are unflatteringly shot by Peter Menzies, Jr in flat bright lighting like an episode of Desperate Housewives, and who are portrayed as so needy that the material comes awfully close to misogyny. This, sadly, is what working actresses of a certain age are often reduced to in movies these days. Zeta-Jones at least keeps her dignity, and Greer has the comic chops to just push forward and pretend it’s funny, but Biel seems wan and strained, and Thurman, who’s never quite been able to pull off comedy (The Accidental Husband, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, even god help us Batman & Robin) wasn’t held back from visibly trying much too hard. Quaid, normally the most reliable of performers, overacts all over the place.
As for Butler, he’s affable enough, and he obediently goes through his paces of gradually civilizing, as he comes to realize that winning back his wife and earning the respect of his son are all that could ever really matter, but if there was any other dimension to be found in this material, he doesn’t seem to be searching for it. His work, and the movie in general, give the lie to the title: they’re not playing for any stakes at all.
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