The romantic comedy Playing for Keeps has an excellent first 45 minutes mostly because it isn’t trying to be a standard rom-com. What starts off as a curiously winning mixture of a kids sport’s movie and a racy, adult sex farce, however, gives way somewhat suddenly to become something that’s merely okay and not at all surprising. That wonderful opening makes the film still fairly passable, it’s just a shame the wild and hilarious tone of this ensemble piece couldn’t be sustained.
Former Premier League soccer star George Dryer (Gerard Butler) left the game with an ankle injury at age 36, and his skills and pride never recovered. Moving back to Virginia to be closer to his son (Noah Lomax) and his ex-wife (Jessica Biel), George is almost flat broke and pinning all his employment hopes on landing a gig as a TV sportscaster. When the opportunity to coach his son’s soccer team falls into his lap, he sees this as a chance to reconnect with his former family, but he gets more than he bargained for when the parents of the kids on the team turn out to be largely horny nutbars.
In this set up of characters, the film manages to be delightful and full of some truly hearty belly laughs that come courtesy of a gang of well cast pros. Judy Greer gets to show off her always uncannily strong comedic chops as a loopy single mother who’s essentially stalking George. Catherine Zeta-Jones gets a more naturally fitting role as the sexpot who could give George his big break in television if he plays his cards right. Uma Thurman doesn’t get as much to do as the cheating wife of the team’s main financier and the town’s biggest nutjob, but the man playing her husband sure does.
The show gets stolen in these early moments by a gleefully unhinged Dennis Quaid who keeps acting like he just chased lines of cocaine with a six pack of Red Bull as Thurman’s husband in the most truly subversive note the film can muster. In this role Quaid goes whole hog as someone who wants to live fast and die young (with some severe anger management issues), but who still wants to live out the American dream. He has no trouble loaning George sports cars worth more than his life, bribing to get his kid to play goalie, and asking randomly if his new buddy can bail him out of prison. It’s so absolutely riotous to watch him that he’s almost worth the price of admission on his own.
But just as things seem to be getting crazier and more farcical, director Gabriele Muccino (the sap behind the dreadfully manipulative Will Smith dramas The Pursuit of Happyness and Seven Pounds) and writer Robbie Fox (delivering his first screenplay since So I Married an Axe Murderer) simply stop caring about the far more interesting and magnetic characters drawing George into their world, and instead throws together an entire second half devoted only to the ill advised storyline designed to get Biel and Butler back together again.
The problem with this story line is that it’s very apparent from the outset why these two characters shouldn’t be together, and there’s nothing in the opening moments to suggest that it’s even a remotely good idea. It’s not that Biel and Butler don’t work well together, but their characters by design are not meant to have any chemistry and there’s nothing that can be done to work on that. The best moments between the two come in that great opening where they function more realistically as friends with a shared history. As a couple, it’s just hard to root for them even if they do have a child to keep them in close proximity. Hints that George will be leaving for a job at ESPN in Connecticut and that his wife will soon remarry to a guy that really doesn’t like George don’t add any suspense since the film brings back all its quirky characters and misuses them in a finale that resolves things far too neatly and easily.
Ultimately what saves the film from being an almost heartbreaking loss in a close game is the good will and natural charm that Butler brings to the role. Pairing him with good actors constantly energizes his performances and his way with child actors is impeccable. He can do the romantic leading man thing in his sleep, but he brings just enough extra to the table to make it a bit better than it should be overall. It starts as a fun film for everyone in the audience, but it ends up being only passable to people who were dragged there by significant others.