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Playing for Keeps
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A Sub-Par Gerard Butler Vehicle--Who'd Have Thunk It?"
1 stars

Have you ever found yourself in the situation of coming home after a long day and discovering that there is nothing on hand in the way of food other than a few leftovers long past their shelf life and a few things of such a nauseating nature that you are at a loss as to why you bought them in the first place and--rather than venture back out in search of proper sustenance--decide to just throw them together and hope that you can at least keep everything down? "Playing For Keeps" is like the cinematic equivalent of that meal in the way that it throws together any number of unpalatable ingredients--a story that involves a self-centered jerk learning to be a better person, cute kids and randy soccer moms, lead actors who have proven to be so wooden in the past that what they do for a living is closer to planking than acting, a supporting cast of usually reliable players blatantly coasting through nothing roles in exchange for quick paychecks and a director whose most memorable on-screen moment to date was a theoretically serious scene depicting suicide-via-jellyfish--in the hopes of coming up with something that some brave viewers might want to check out, even if only after discovering that their initial moviegoing choices were sold out. That isn't exactly the highest bar to hurdle but "Playing For Keeps" is so thoroughly rotten that it never comes close to clearing it. This is one that is so bad that you don't want to walk out on it--you want to tunnel out of it Shawshank style on the basis that no matter how much crap you might run into in the process, it is infinitely preferable to the crap on the screen.

Our hero--to stretch a perfectly good word to the breaking point--is George (Gerard Butler), a one-time soccer star on the level of David Beckham (who is no doubt name-checked because he is the only male soccer player that most audiences today have actually heard of) who has fallen on hard times since his retirement from the game thanks to a record of bad investments and selfish bad-boy behavior. As the story begins, he has just relocated to a Virginia suburb in the hopes of getting a job as a TV sports analyst and, almost as an afterthought, to reestablish contact with ex Stacie (Jessica Biel) and their young son. While taking the kid to soccer practice, George is appalled at the coach's evident lack of interest and takes matters into his own hands by showing the moppets how to kick the ball. As a result of this, George agrees to officially coach the team, a move that thrills the kids and really thrills their ridiculously hot-to-trot moms, including a glamourous and neurotic recent divorcee (Judy Greer), a glamorous former sportscaster (Catherine Zeta Jones) and the glamorous trophy wife (Uma Thurman) of a glad-handing but wildly jealous millionaire good ol' boy (Dennis Quaid).

Although he partakes of some of the women throwing themselves at him at first, he soon becomes more interested in trying to woo Stacie away from her nice-guy fiancee--whose name I didn't catch but it might as well have been Ralph "Baxter" Bellamy--and regain what he previously lost by thinking only of himself. Alas, complications arise when ESPN decides to expand its soccer coverage and thinks that George has just the right personality to fill those extra 30 seconds per week, an opportunity that will force him to choose once again between being there for himself or his family. I would tell you how it all ends but I suspect that if you have enough going on in the noggin to have gotten this far into this review, you are probably not only smart enough to correctly divine the conclusion but smart enough to offer a half-dozen or so better ideas as to how to wrap it up and with only one or two of them involving the arrival of a sniper.

There are so many things wrong with "Playing For Keeps" that to account for all of them would transform any review into nothing more than a mere list of grievances. That said, towering above them all is the impossibly abysmal screenplay by Robbie Fox, quite possibly the most inept blueprint for a movie theoretically aimed at adults to be produced this year. There is not one thing about it that works on any level--the story is pure drivel that runs the gamut from boring to outright laughable, the tonal shifts from sitcom smuttiness to allegedly heartfelt melodrama never come across as anything other than jarring and not a single one of the characters are even remotely likable or interesting. Making matters worse, if such a thing is possible, the screenplay seems to go out of its way to ensure that there is not a single scene that displays anything resembling plausible human behavior and as a result, there are long stretches of screen time that are so bewildering that they almost come across as a particularly ineffective form of self-parody.

There are any number of examples I could cite but I will mention only one. There is a point in the movie in which our hero seems to have finally made headway with his estranged son and makes plans to take him to a soccer game. Now you and I both know that something has to come up to ensure that he can't make it at the last second in order to throw some pathos into the mix. Fair enough, but what is the roadblock that Fox has devised? Just before George leave, he gets a call from the rich guy, who is phoning him from jail where he is hanging after getting into a drunken brawl.. He wants George to swing by his house and grab the money to post his bail. And yet, the guy's wife is not only there but is fully aware of the situation and is not particularly upset over what has happened. Why then, you might ask, doesn't the guy simply call his wife and have her bring the bail money herself? Because Fox needed a vaguely poignant moment at that point in the film and apparently could not figure out any other way of pulling it off than that, even though the whole sequence is so unbelievable that you can practically hear the gears grinding on the soundtrack. This is storytelling on such an insipid level that you almost want to step up into the screen and slap all of the characters until your arm grows numb.

That said, the screenplay is in no way the only artistic sin committed through the duration of "Playing For Keeps," not by a long shot. In the hands of a gifted filmmaker like the late legends Michael Ritchie and Robert Altman, this material could have be wrestled into a more-than-satisfactory social satire--something along the lines of "Shampoo" with orange slices and SUVs. Needless to say, director Gabriele Muccino is no threat to either Ritchie or Altman--even in their current states, they could outdo his best efforts without even trying--and most of the scenes are executed so poorly that it feels as if he literally has no idea of what they are supposed to be conveying in the first place. On the acting front, Gerard Butler has officially gotten to the point where his name in the cast should be considered a warning that the end results are not likely to be good and his turn here is one of his weakest to date--rather than coming across as likable or sympathetic, he just wanders through the proceedings like a boorish bore for who one wishes only the worst. As the love of his life, Jessica Biel is once again as dull as she is attractive and Lord knows that she is attractive. However, while one can easily forget their efforts, it is more difficult to shake the amazingly hammy turns from such usually reliable performers as Quaid, Thurman and Greer, all of whom give performances that are amongst the worst of their careers. Lucky for them, very few people will get a chance to see them embarrassing themselves as they do here.

Tiresome, constantly tripping over the line between misogyny and a more all-inclusive form of hatefulness and about as boldly original as its title, "Playing For Keeps" is an unconscionable waste of time and talent--the kind of film seemingly designed to appear on a cable channel that you just had deleted from your package. The only performer who comes out with even a vague shred of dignity is Catherine Zeta Jones and that is because she a.) looks smashing and b.) largely seems to be ignoring her surroundings in order to do her own thing. Oddly enough, just about this time twelve years ago, moviegoers were watching her and Quaid in the incalculably better "Traffic." I wonder if she thought about that at all while shooting this movie--I know for a fact that I was while watching it

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22566&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/06/12 22:36:52
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User Comments

8/04/13 dr.lao A rom com that is neither moving nor funny: what's the point?!? 1 stars
12/11/12 Jonathan Gray This movie was ok. 3 stars
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  07-Dec-2012 (PG-13)
  DVD: 05-Mar-2013

  01-Jan-2013 (12A)

  DVD: 05-Mar-2013

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