By Van Thomas Roberts
Gerard Butler hasn’t made a hilarious romantic comedy since “The Ugly Truth” (2009) with Katherine Heigl. “The Bounty Hunter” (2010), with Jennifer Aniston, qualified as a woebegone stinker. Now, “Playing For Keeps” (* OUT OF ****) is enough to make you weep. The gifted people who assembled this scatterbrained saga never synchronize its elements for a satisfying conclusion. One minute “Playing for Keeps” cavorts as if it were an antic adolescent sports comedy, with a retired soccer player turning a team of elementary school-aged losers into contenders. Imagine “The Bad News Bears” with family friendly dialogue. As it turns out, one of the players is our coach’s estranged son from his first-and-only broken marriage. The hero has relocated to his ex-wife’s hometown to behave like a father and gets the notion that he can woo his ex-wife back into his amorous arms.
Just for the sake of complication, our hero’s ex-wife (Jessica Biel of “Stealth”) has spent the last three years living in the same house with another handsome stud who she plans to wed on the eve of our hero’s return. Meantime, the ex-husband must contend with a number of attractive but sexually frustrated housewives that threaten to throw his life into a tailspin. No matter how much he tries, these dizzy dames turn up in his bedroom. Since he is endeavoring to reconcile himself with his ex-wife, these randy women prove an obstacle that nearly derails his efforts. You could call this movie “My Best Ex-Wife’s Wedding.”
Let’s not forget that our hero is struggling to land a job as a television sportscaster so he can pay off his towering debt and serve as a responsible citizen. These incompatible subplots wander off on tangents at the wrong times. Meantime, “Seven Pounds” director Gabriele Muccino never makes any of this frantic nonsense appear remotely amusing.
Mind you, Gerard Butler radiates charisma galore and treats us to his real-life native tongue, but everybody else appears out of place. Indeed, he even looks like he knows how to play soccer.
Jessica Biel gives a ‘plain Jane’ performance as dowry brunette, while a hammy Dennis Quaid tries to impart some comic hilarity as an affluent husband who fears that his wife, Uma Thurman, is cheating on him. Muccino and “In The Army Now” storyteller Robbie Fox look like they improvised most of the action, and they orchestrated the various plots in the worst possible order.
Catherine Zeta-Jones and Judy Greer are squandered in this laugh-free fantasy as our hero’s groupies. The chief problem with “Playing for Keeps” is that Jessica Biel’s last quarter decision to change her future wedding plans isn’t convincing. Furthermore, Gerard Butler and his co-star generate all the chemistry of a couple of plastic mannequins.
The upbeat outcome is a foregone conclusion without a shred of credibility despite all the pedestrian hi-jinks cropping up around it. You might smile a lot at this 95-minute movie, but you won’t be laughing with side-splitting hilarity at the humdrum humor.
Altogether, “Playing for Keeps” ranks as a rental with little to recommend it.0