About halfway through Playing for Keeps, I noticed that I hadn’t laughed yet but so far had found it pretty watchable. Having Uma Thurman parade around in her frillies certainly doesn’t hurt, and added to that are the ever-delightful wiles of Judy Greer, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Jessica Biel. The movie treats them as basically eye-candy (as well as Gerard Butler), so why can’t I?
Butler plays George, a former soccer superstar recently relocated to Virginia to reclaim his wife Stacie (Biel) and, on the side, reconnect with his son. He spends his mornings filming demo tapes for a shot as an ESPN sportscaster; his afternoons watching his son’s little-league soccer practices; and, later, his nights bedding the many soccer moms.
One day he decides to take over for the apathetic little-league coach, earning the respect of Stacie and the adoration of his son and the previously mentioned soccer moms. He also makes the acquaintance of Carl (Dennis Quaid), a successful businessman and husband of the lovestruck Patti (Thurman) who has an eerie and obnoxious habit of back-slapping like a yokel who’s just told a joke. Anyway, Carl bribes George to put his son in the goalie spot and get his daughter to screech the national anthem before each game.
With money and dames at his disposal, George sleeps his way through the gauntlet, starting with the needy Barb (Greer) and moving on to the brazen Denise (Zeta-Jones), who helps him get his demo to ESPN, but he curiously draws the line at Patti, who seems the most deserving. Around this point, he realizes that his original goal was, in fact, to get back Stacie, who still plans to marry her boyfriend Matt (James Tupper).
I know we’re supposed to root for George, but after George blows off several dates with his son, Matt offhandedly asks Stacie, “What did you ever see in that guy?” the line is there to put us against Matt, but, at least to me, it’s dead on. George is pretty much a selfish jerk and treats women (well, everyone, but mostly women) like tissues.
Nevertheless, despite many flat jokes, this had the potential for being something out of the ordinary — semi-spoilers ensue, so be warned before reading. Where I thought the movie was going, and what kept me interested, was the near-romance between George and Patti. Had he given up his hopes of getting Stacie back and pursued a relationship with someone else, it’d strike a welcome note of maturity and make the movie far more engaging and original, whether he juggled the career-based romance with Zeta-Jones, the personal romance with Stacie, and the true-love with Patti (while being stalked by Barb); came to clash with Carl; or struggled to be a good, divorced father, it’d be better than what actually happens, as well as more realistic.
This isn’t the idle angst of the critic imposing what they wished on a film instead of what is, either, as the film makes every indication of pursuing the above storylines. Where it ends up casts the characters in such a poor light and leaves so many threads dangling that it may well have been an alteration, it feels so abrupt (what happened to the bribe? What happened to Catherine Zeta-Jones? What about the clear setup for further conflict in the final soccer match?).
In fact, you can trace the precise moment where the film goes downhill at the scene where Greg is driving to a new life in Connecticut. He pulls his car (by the way, if you get bored, count the number of auto-related product placements) over to the shoulder and debates whether he should continue on or go back. At the moment, the movie could go either way, and its ultimate decision is so spectacularly wrong that it may well have been a dream sequence.
In fact, this is the first film I’ve seen where the “happy” ending is wholly disturbing. The events that follow and end the film feel not only rushed, but, worse, make the characters appear downright sociopathic. Stacie appears unbelievably irresponsible as a mother, to say nothing of her as a fiancee. And George is nothing more than a womanizing liar. Of course we all expect the mixup where Stacie is heartbroken to learn that George has slept with someone he hasn’t really slept with, and yet, once the confusion is cleared, you’re left wondering Well, yeah, he didn’t sleep with her, but what about all the other women?
In all, Playing for Keeps is a disappointment. Barely any laughs, a lot of missed potential, but, for a time, nice to look at.