'Playing for Keeps' strains for credibility

| Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, 8:59 p.m.

“Playing for Keeps” isn't content just to be a generic romantic comedy.

If that makes Gabriele Muccino's film sound like it's a step up from the usual slog -- whoa, no. Not at all. Not only is the movie not funny and not particularly romantic, it also treats women like idiots. Really, Gerard Butler is fine and all, but is he so irresistibly gorgeous that every soccer mom in town would throw themselves at him?

In this ridiculous little world, yes.

If that weren't enough, the script, by Robbie Fox, is lazy; characters disappear for long stretches (who can blame them?), only to show up again when some ridiculous plot contrivance requires it. Simply put, it's a mess.

Butler plays George, a former professional soccer great whose career ended with an ankle injury. Now he's living in Virginia, out of work and broke, dreaming of a sportscasting career while trying to spend more time with his son, Lewis (Noah Lomax), and, if things fall his way, maybe rekindle a little something with his ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel). But she's moved on and is now engaged to a bland but evidently rich drip (James Tupper).

One day, after watching Lewis' inattentive soccer coach talk on his cell phone during practice one too many times, George hops onto the field and shows the kids a thing or two. Next thing you know (like, seriously, about 45 seconds later) he is coaching the team, the kids love him and their skills are vastly improved.

Then there are the moms, who are strongly attracted to George. Like, make-a-fool-of-yourself strongly. Barb (Judy Greer) is a needy divorcee given to crying jags. Denise (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a former sportscaster who might be able to give George a few professional tips, wink wink, nod nod till your head falls off. And Patti (Uma Thurman) is the wife of the rich, hot-headed Carl (Dennis Quaid). She knows Carl cheats on her, but enjoys their lavish lifestyle.

Carl also sponsors the team, which is his way of bribing whoever the coach happens to be to let his son play goalie and his tone-deaf daughter sing the National Anthem. He makes all this clear early on, sticks around for a couple of scenes and then disappears until the final act, reappearing at the most inopportune time possible. (Even George looks at him and says, oh, hey, I was wondering where you were.)

The romance is predictable. The laughs are few and far between. But the presence of genuinely good actresses playing such awful roles is mystifying. Only Biel's character has anything approaching a relatable personality.

Biel is, in fact, quite good. Maybe she thought she was in another movie. About 10 minutes into “Playing for Keeps,” you'll wish you were, too.

Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic is the chief film critic for Gannett.

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