"Playing for Keeps," the perfectly harmless if cloyingly banal semi-comedy that just wafted into theaters, has the sort of plot that does not, alas, attract much attention to the screenwriter at rooftop cocktail parties.
Aspiring starlet: "And what do you do?"
Robbie Fox, screenwriter: "I write the movies."
A.S.: "Oh! Really. What have you written?"
Fox: "Well, I wrote 'So I Married an Axe Murderer.' "
A.S.: "Doesn't ring a bell."
Fox: "It starred Mike Myers? Came out in — oh, 1993. Probably before your time."
A.S.: "No, I was born in 1989, so not quite. Anything more recent?"
Fox: "Yeah! OK, yes, it's, uh, it's a soccer movie. Basically Gerard Butler, the Spartan king in '300,' that guy, he's a washed-up soccer star. He's Scottish but he's living in Virginia, near his ex-wife, Jessica Biel. They've got a 9-year-old son, but the retired athlete, George, has never really been much of a father. So he coaches the kid's soccer team and tries to fend off all the single soccer moms and then tries to get back together with Jessica Biel before she gets married to a guy with no discernable personality whatsoever."
A.S.: (blank stare)
Fox: "It's a family comedy, but you also get to see Uma Thurman in her underwear. Also George is trying to get a job as a sportscaster. Because he's broke."
... So you're hooked, right? Because what could go wrong with a movie about watching Gerard Butler run little kids around cones while he waddles through a mid-life crisis, weaving in and out of romantic scrapes?
As it turns out, plenty. For starters, the guy who six years ago was screaming "Spartans never retreat! Spartans never surrender!" at a pack of bloodthirsty, spear-wielding Abercrombie models is now telling a pack of rugrats to bring it in for a chant of "one, two, three, Go Cyclones!" and if you remember listening to Nine Inch Nails' "Just Like You Imagined" over the trailer for "300," this is an altogether unforgivable situation. (YouTube it. Seriously.)
Even if it's terribly small-bore, you have to give "Playing for Keeps" this much: It seems earnest in its apparent attempt to sandwich a family drama around the former soccer great and the woman with whom he couldn't hold it together. Alas that leaves director Gabriele Muccino flinging Butler (b. 1969) in the general direction of Biel (b. 1982) for most of the film while a cougar brigade that includes Uma (vamping), Catherine Zeta-Jones (panting) and Judy Greer (cringe-inducing) fling themselves at Butler. Dennis Quaid also shows up as a greasy high-roller soccer dad, turning in probably the film's best performance. But even he isn't funny. No one here is. The basics here are often amiss. The tone's mottled. The dialogue is rote. Even if you're not the sort of person who notices cinematography, you'll find yourself wondering why some key shots are full of the backs of people's heads.
Butler's clearly trying to balance his age against the types of roles he can expect at his age. (He also has a producer credit in "Playing for Keeps," so this really is his baby.) It can't all be "300" and "Machine Gun Preacher" and "RocknRolla" forever, even when you're 40-something and still have abs like a marimba. You have to show leading-man range. Unfortunately this fellow George, this protagonist, he is something of a non-character. He's a nice guy, and he tries to do the right thing. But there are precisely three phases of life in which a man is at his most vapid. They are: When he tries to get a job doing television news. When he tries to talk his way out of women's romantic advances. When he tries to talk his way back into the life of his about-to-be-married ex. Alas, Butler is all three in this movie, and at no point does he say anything particularly memorable, interesting or inspiring. This. Is. Not. Sparta.