Reflecting back on the week it took to write the screenplay for Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader talked about an urgency so great, it was like an out-of-body experience: “It jumped out of my head like an animal.” Playing For Keeps is the exact opposite of that—if there’s any relationship between urgency and prolificacy, it must have taken 50 years of missed deadlines for the ooze of apathy and defeat to coalesce into a first draft. The film is a bedroom farce without the farce, a fish-out-of-water comedy on sun-cracked lake-bed, a story of fatherly redemption that barely gets past the hair-mussing stage. Even the title represents a weak compromise: Once called Playing The Field in reference to its hero being a retired soccer star and ladies’ man, it’s now the generic Playing For Keeps, under the presumed logic that the Kool-Aid wasn’t watery enough.
Continuing a losing streak certain to assure his casting in future romantic comedies, Gerard Butler plays a once-great, now-humbled former soccer superstar who blew his fortune on bad investments and spendthrift habits. Resigned to renting out a guesthouse in suburban Virginia to be closer to his 10-year-old son, Butler sends out amateur videotapes to stations that might want a soccer commentator, but he barely has the money to make rent. With encouragement from his ex, Jessica Biel, Butler coaches their son’s soccer team, winning games and winning attention from the many bored wives and single moms in attendance. These include Uma Thurman as the wife of a rich serial adulterer (Dennis Quaid), Catherine Zeta-Jones as a TV producer who offers opportunities for work and play, and Judy Greer as a weepy divorcée who camps out on Butler’s doorstep. Then there’s Biel, who’s engaged, but persuadable.
The spectacle of these women throwing themselves at Butler’s feet is pathetic and sad—and a little less than modern—but the bigger problem with Playing For Keeps is that nothing so forceful as “throwing” ever happens. It’s more like they underhand-toss themselves at Butler’s feet, meekly vying for his scruffy affections, then taking off before a screwball comedy starts to develop. Director Gabriele Muccino, an Italian filmmaker hand-picked by Will Smith to stultify audiences with The Pursuit Of Happyness and Seven Pounds, cares most about Butler growing up and bonding with his freckle-faced son, which is by far the least exciting or surprising direction the film could have gone. At every turn, it follows the path of least resistance.