On a certain level, I suppose you can’t blame an annoying thing for being what it is. There’s no point in getting righteously indignant about a mosquito sucking the very life out of you; that’s what nature designed it to do. So, perhaps it’s equally pointless to rail against Playing for Keeps for doing what Hollywood romantic comedies seem engineered to do above all else: ingratiate themselves.
But what that means—at least to those of us who think narrative structure matters more than a little—is a genre that feels terrified of giving its characters a point of moral or ethical unattractiveness from which they can genuinely grow. The most profound investment is making everyone “likeable,” so that stars like Gerard Butler have the opportunity to keep making more highquality romantic-comedy fare like The Ugly Truth and The Bounty Hunter. Better to be forgettable than to be memorable for making viewers, even for a moment, question whether the protagonist—roguish though he may be—is deep down inside always and forever the awesomest guy you’d ever want to know and/or sleep with.
Take Playing for Keeps’ hero, George Dryer (Butler), just for example. He’s a onetime European soccer star, his career ended by injury, now struggling to make ends meet in northern Virginia in the absence of the one career option he was ever really good at. He’s also trying to reconnect with his 9-year-old son, Lewis (Noah Lomax), after several years drifting around at various failed business ventures.
The journey of a guy trying to grow up enough to be a good dad is a solid enough dramatic premise—albeit not one generally associated with romantic comedy. Those elements are provided when George agrees to coach Lewis’ soccer team, and the other players’ mothers can’t help throwing themselves at him. Enter Judy Greer as an insecure recent divorceé, Catherine Zeta-Jones as an unhappily married ex-sportscaster, and Uma Thurman as the wife of a smarmy wheeler-dealer (Dennis Quaid) who gets chummy with George; Quaid is around, along with George’s landlord (Iqbal Theba), strictly to make it clear that men want to be him just as much as women want him.
Director Gabriele Muccino’s (The Last Kiss, The Pursuit of Happyness) farcical roundelay of hot-and-bothered women might have been useful as a way to show that George—he of the irresistible Scottish burr and 300-sequel-ready six-pack abs—is still the unabashed womanizer of his playing days, whose straying presumably led to his separation from his ex-wife, Stacie (Jessica Biel). But the George we’re introduced to from the outset is already a changed man— not only humbled by his fall from celebrity to hand-to-mouth living, but downright gentlemanly in waiting until Greer and Zeta- Jones make the move on him, and outright refusing to accept Thurman’s come-hither offer because he considers her husband a friend. Even the moment of distraction that results in George missing Lewis’ first soccer goal is set up less as an example of self-absorption than an unfortunate coincidence. Virtually everything that becomes an impediment to Playing With Keeps’ ultimate, inevitable happy ending isn’t George’s fault. He’s already pretty much the stand-up guy he needs to be to deserve a second chance.
The problem with that setup is that by the time all the farce is summarily abandoned—and the plot becomes entirely focused on whether George can convince Stacie to give him that second chance— there’s nowhere for the story to go. It becomes a long slog of a waiting game through Stacie’s tearful uncertainty over whether she can trust him again, through a ridiculous “it’s not what it looks like” moment, through impediments that are arbitrary rather than built into the characters. It’s not genuine enough to work as heartfelt romance, and certainly not funny enough to work as comedy.
But hey, the important thing is that we all come out of the experience liking Gerard Butler enough to pay for his next romantic leading role, whether or not you ever gave a rat’s ass about who he was in this role.
Maybe we can’t blame the mosquito for being a mosquito, but that
doesn’t mean we can’t smack it down and prevent any further sucking.
PLAYING FOR KEEPS
Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Noah Lomax