The romantic comedy genre is a very forgiving place for performers and filmmakers. Rom-coms are relatively cheap to produce, and like horror films (which are far cheaper) they usually get a guaranteed audience on opening weekend, so it’s not uncommon to see actors and actresses on the downward slide in Hollywood find a home there. (The reverse works too, with actors on the rise getting a bump from a successful but otherwise low-key rom-coms.)
The point is it’s always interesting to see who turns up in a romantic comedy that hits theaters with no expectations.
George (Gerard Butler) was a big time soccer (the football kind) player once upon a time, but an ankle injury saw an end to his career and his stardom. His family also fell by the wayside at some point, but now he’s moved to the same town as his wife Stacie (Jessica Biel) and son Lewis (Noah Lomax) in the hopes of reconnecting with them both. He’s working towards a sportscasting career but takes a gig coaching Lewis’ soccer team while he waits for a call from ESPN. George tries to rekindle a life with his wife and son, but his recurring reckless behavior, the horn-dog soccer moms and Stacie’s Baxter of a fiance (James Tupper) may just derail his dream.
Playing for Keeps is a surprise in that it sits noticeably above Butler’s past attempts (The Bounty Hunter? The Ugly Truth?) at the genre due to an occasionally funny script and some fun performances from the supporting cast. It’s an odd cast too with a mix of traditional supporting players like Judy Greer and Iqbal Theba playing alongside past stars Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Uma Thurman. Almost all of them exhibit more charisma than the lead couple, which admittedly isn’t saying much, and they also provide most of the film’s laughs. Greer and Quaid are the stand-outs, with the former being fantastic as always and the latter inventing some new form of acting that focuses 80% of his effort on touching Butler with the remaining split between talking and smiling. (All of that hand work was apparently tiring, as Quaid’s character all but disappears during the film’s second half.)
Butler and Biel are serviceable here, but between the two it’s Butler who comes across best. He has a convincing energy in the soccer scenes, and he seems more comfortable with banter when he doesn’t have to hide his accent. Biel, though, is a bit of a cold, pale fish, and while part of the problem is a script that doesn’t even make moves towards a George/Stacie reconciliation until well past the film’s midway point, her lack of personality is a drag. She seems unnecessarily dour for too much of the film.
As mentioned, Robbie Fox’s script doesn’t really give Stacie much to do for the first half, and the result is a character you can’t understand anyone trying to win over. It’s not the screenplay’s only problem either. And no, the unnecessary Three’s Company hi-jinx aren’t the end of the issues either.
It’s never made entirely clear what killed the marriage in the first place, but while Stacie seems quite adamant that it was enough to sever the relationship for good, her position shifts with seemingly the smallest of effort on George’s part. It’s not convincing in the slightest unless you accept Stacie as a shallow and weak woman which obviously lessens the effect of a romantic comedy. What else tempers the film’s power? Stacie’s fiance is shown repeatedly to be a nice guy and someone she seems to love, but the script asks viewers to cheer for his dismissal. Infidelity is a valid subject in movies (Closer is one of my favorite films), but it shouldn’t have a home in a rom-com where both players are meant to be likeable and loveable.
Director Gabriele Muccino, still in movie jail for vilifying jellyfish in Seven Pounds, takes on the role of journeyman filmmaker and delivers a film with no visible director fingerprints. It’s a paycheck and a harmless line on his resume, but while the result leaves him free of criticism he’s also absent any compliments. The film simply is.
Playing for Keeps isn’t a bad film necessarily, but it never stands out in a crowded multiplex. It has more laughs than expected and no annoying performers/characters (although Thurman comes close), but it’s destined to be forgotten in short order.
The Upside: Some laughs; Jessica Biel is a pleasure to look at even when she’s frowning; Judy Greer is always worth watching.
The Downside: Asks viewers to cheer for infidelity; fairly forgettable.
On the Side: Robbie Fox also wrote So I Married an Axe Murderer.