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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 7, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 49
Game over
Arts & Entertainment
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Game over

Overly earnest Playing for Keeps fails to score

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

PLAYING FOR KEEPS
Opens December 7

Retired Scottish soccer sensation George Dryer (Gerard Butler) isn't at his best. He's moved to a Virginia suburb to be close to his ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel) and re-establish a relationship with his young son Lewis (Noah Lomax), whom he hardly knows. Low on funds and hoping to get a broadcasting job with ESPN, George is gently coerced into coaching Lewis' soccer team, discovering true joy in the smiles on the faces of his charges as they learn to play the game.

What he isn't prepared for are the advances made on him by the team members' parents. One kid's wealthy dad, Carl (Dennis Quaid), looks at him and sees dollar signs, using the former professional athlete to schmooze business clients. Others, like single moms Denise (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Barb (Judy Greer), look at George and see a cure for their bedroom loneliness - George a bit unprepared for, but not unreceptive to, this sudden carnal attention. But it's Lewis he wants to impress and Stacy he longs to get close to, and if he's ever going to do one, let alone both, of those things he's going to have to finally grow up and become the mature adult he's always refused to be.

Playing for Keeps has all the potential in the world. It features an outstanding cast of character actors (including the unmentioned Uma Thurman, Iqbal Theba, and James Tupper) and a solid director in Gabriele Muccino (The Pursuit of Happyness, The Last Kiss). The behind-the-scenes crew includes crackerjack cinematographer Peter Menzies (Die Hard With a Vengeance, The Incredible Hulk), production designer Daniel T. Dorrance (The Paperboy), and veteran composer Andrea Guerra (Letters to Juliet, Nine), while the scenario itself is ripe with dramatic and comedic possibility bordering on the infinite.

So what's the problem? The issue is that Robbie Fox's (So I Married an Axe Murderer) screenplay runs rampant with cliché and never meets a melodramatic plot point it doesn't want to slovenly embrace. It isn't interested in going into the complicated emotional nuances continually hinted at throughout, instead contenting itself with doling out puerile platitudes. It wastes the majority of its talented female supporting cast - especially Thurman - in thankless roles well beneath their respective talent levels, and for each time it manages to get something right there are countless more where it runs pointlessly in circles desperately searching for a reason to exist.

At the same time, the movie somewhat shockingly goes down pretty easy and isn't as difficult a sit as that description of the script might imply. Butler is at his roguishly charming best as George, while Biel walks through the film with a quiet confidence I found moderately entrancing. The scenes between father and son have kick to them, an emotional heft the remainder of the movie sadly lacks, and while the ultimate solution to our hero's problem is as clichéd as they come, there's something about the way that Muccino delivers this syrupy pap that didn't cause me to gag. There are laughs to be found, a couple tears that potentially could be shed, and moments of warmth and heart that break through the melodramatic tedium, all of which helped make the movie palatable.

This is not to say that Playing for Keeps scores. It misses the net by a wide margin, going over the goal post and sailing into the crowd. This is one instance where a talented cast and a strong director are let down by a screenplay whose inherent shortcomings they just can't compensate for. The movie earns a red card for wasting its oodles of potential, and it's easy to see why distributor FilmDistrict is releasing it into theaters with little fanfare and almost nonexistent backing.

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