It is entirely possible that I was expecting too much from Playing for Keeps, and it is also entirely possible that I’m the only one who was. Yes, the film stars several big-name actors who’ve turned appearing in terrible films into a virtual art form, and yes, the film was directed by Gabriele Muccino, last seen on U.S. shores suicide-bombing Will Smith’s career with the hilariously loathsome Seven Pounds. But once upon a time, Muccino was an elegant cinematic poet of Italian middle-class angst, in films like The Last Kiss (the Italian original, not the Zach Braff remake). He even managed to carry over his stylistic sensibilities into the touching modern American poverty drama The Pursuit of Happyness (also starring Smith).
And Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, and Catherine Zeta-Jones are all actors who remain essentially likable; you keep waiting for them to appear in something decent and show what they’re made of. (To be fair, Butler did have Coriolanus last year, and Biel appeared in this year’s way-underrated horror-twist-fest The Tall Man.) Basically, these are actors due a break. Unfortunately, this comedy-drama about a kids’ soccer coach boinking a bunch of desperate housewives doesn’t appear to be it.
It starts out promisingly, though. George (Butler) is a former international soccer star, now broke and trying desperately to patch together a sportscasting career. (He makes little demo videos in his living room, with the hopes of eventually getting the right person to see them). Despite his lack of means, he’s trying to live in a chichi Virginia suburb in order to remain close to his son (Noah Lomax) and ex-wife (Biel). One day, after witnessing the tubby, useless coach of his son’s soccer team teaching the kids to kick with their toes (a major no-no, in case you didn’t know), our fallen soccer god steps in and shows the young ‘uns how to really do it. Soon enough, he’s been hired as the new coach, and almost immediately, the neighborhood’s well-heeled mothers are throwing themselves at him — winking from the driver’s-side windows of their colossal SUVs and then showing up in his bed. Among them is Denise (Zeta-Jones), who just happens to have once been a sportscaster herself, and offers George a chance to get his demo to the bigwigs at ESPN. Of course, Denise always seems to shows up when George is with his son, and thus does the film present us with the typical bullshit movie conflict of Evil Career Demands (and Occasional Hot Sex) versus Noble Parenting Duties. Compounded, of course, by the fact that George is still in love with his ex.
The problem with Playing for Keeps is that it’s essentially three movies battling for supremacy: Is it an inspirational tale of a former soccer star who finds his redemption by coaching a kids’ soccer team? Or is it a Blake Edwards–style farce about a man who can’t stop diddling lots of different women? (Hey, the Italians used to be good at this sort of movie!) Or is it the aforementioned melodrama of career versus a return to family life? It’s probably possible to juggle all three strands, but Muccino and screenwriter Robbie Fox don’t even bother to juggle them. Instead, they opt to just tune different strands in and out, which creates a kind of tonal whiplash. You settle in for a soccer flick, and suddenly you’re dealing with awkward sex-romp slapstick. And just as suddenly, you’re whisked into an emotional, teary-eyed scene between George and his ex. And then the virtually abandoned soccer plot comes back (complete with an extended, climactic final game for a championship season that we didn’t even know about). And then more rich ladies looking for a Butlering. And then the teary-eyed emotional romance. And so on.
Only one of these strands is any good, and it’s the least likely one. When Playing for Keeps actually settles down into a more intimate drama about two exes who still have feelings for each other, it works. This is the first time in a long while that either Butler or Biel has seemed convincing in an emotional role. Both are physical performers who move well, and the director’s fluid style gives them space; Muccino has always been particularly attentive to his actors. He doesn’t even overload these scenes with swelling strings — which, frankly, must be hard for the guy who made Seven Pounds. Unfortunately, all this serves to highlight the shoddiness of the rest of the film: You keep expecting some random actress to suddenly jump in from screen left and start balling the actor. Which is not a bad metaphor for the film in general: Playing for Keeps wants to be taken seriously, but it can’t stop humping its own leg.