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Playing for Keeps

Playing for Keeps is the kind of movie that broadcasts its message, and even its ending, from the very trailer. There are plenty of movies whose stories where the end is apparent — Lincoln, for instance. The pleasure is getting there. But in Playing for Keeps, there is little pleasure found in connecting the dots. Even though it only runs 106 minutes, it feels much, much longer.

Gerard Butler plays George, a former soccer player whose career is in the toilet, moves to Virginia to be nearer to his son and ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel). There, he reluctantly takes on the responsibility of coaching his son's soccer team. It would be impossible not to know that our dashing but irresponsible absentee dad will reconnect with his sensible ex before she marries her square fiancee. In the interim, George sleeps with all the horny divorced ladies who swoon over his talent for working with kids. There are no real consequences; anything that could possibly go wrong doesn't.

There are so many guns waiting to go off that Chekhov would pull his own beard out. Playing for Keeps is a souped up Lifetime movie, except there's no over-the-top drama, just one or two shots of Gerard Butler shirtless and sex that's merely implied and alluded to. At one point, I wondered if (okay, hoped that maybe) a character would perhaps have a car accident and die because they were upset and driving in the rain. No, nothing that exciting and silly could happen. Playing for Keeps is so by-the-numbers that it's almost offensive.

What does work in the movie's favor is the touch — just a touch — of chemistry between its leads. Even though there is 15 years between them in real life, they've attempted to meet halfway by putting highlights in Butler's hair and dying Biel's dark brown and dressing her in casual suburban mom clothes. Still, there's a little something between them that makes their sappy scenes together a little touching. That grin works on her after all these years for a reason.

The rest of the ensemble — Judy Greer, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Uma Thurman, and Dennis Quaid — are wildly uneven, though not necessarily miscast. A more fleshed-out script would have allowed the characters some dimension and given the movie at least a little more bite despite the rote premise. Greer as a naturally weird sense of humor, but her character is left flailing as a newly divorced soccer mom who gets her groove back with George. Zeta-Jones is a sexy, possibly dangerous soccer mom who helps George snag a professional opportunity, but her character is ultimately harmless. Quaid is supposed to be some sort of jealous, sleazy, drunk rich guy who would be the type to pull a gun on someone but doesn't, and Thurman, as his wife, comes on like a dippy rich housewife instead of channeling the biting bad ass-itude we know she's capable of. As a character, George is confusing; it's as if he doesn't even want to sleep with all of the soccer moms, but they're just throwing themselves at him and he's hapless to stop them. It's gross and doesn't even fulfill the movie's underlying promise, which is to give its target audience a good dose of Harlequin-style romance with Gerard Butler. Guess those soccer shorts will just have to do. rated this film 2 stars.