Gerard Butler is stuck in an odd rut when it comes to the choices of films he makes. On the one hand after 300 we keep waiting for Butler the movie star to emerge with a big hit that’s equal parts daring and unique. On the other hand he keeps making films that lesser actors, more popular people who happen to act, take to earn a living. For all the failures of his indie films and indie wannabe films to find an audience, from Machine Gun Preacher to Chasing Mavericks, the studio fare of romantic comedies he’s been in haven’t done significantly better either. He seems to be stuck in that area between being a popular person who acts and being a movie star; he has all the tools but hasn’t quite had the breakout hit to cement it following 300.
And Playing For Keeps could’ve been that film but winds up being the same exact drek like The Bounty Hunter.
George (Butler) is a former world class soccer player trying to become the father his son (Noah Lomax) and ex-wife (Jessica Biel) never had. Relegated to weekend guardian status as his ex-wife’s new beau (James Tupper) has seemingly taken over his former role. Broke and trying to become a sportscaster, he finds a common ground with his former family as he coaches his son’s youth soccer team. Shenanigans ensue as he tries to become a sportscaster and apparently ESPN wants him as part of their soccer coverage.
And for the bulk of the film’s running time George is an interesting character in what amounts to a screwball comedy. He’s a man who knows he’s done wrong and is trying to find a way to keep food on the table while rectifying the sins of his past. The comedy format allows him to essentially play the straight man in a series of wacky characters; Butler is in his element reacting as opposed to having to have good one-liners. His reactions are rather hilarious in good chunks; there’s also a sweet family subplot going on as well. And as just a screwball comedy about a man trying to be a good father, trying to mend fences and be a good human being for once, it could be the sort of interesting character piece that would cash in on the promise Butler has shown in the past.
The problem is that the film’s final act shoehorns in a romantic comedy plot about George trying to win his ex-wife back on the eve of her wedding to another man. He and Biel have enough chemistry to make it interesting but unfortunately it’s such a dramatic turn from the film’s first two acts that it’s tacked on at best. This is a film that seems to be angling towards George accepting that you can’t change the past, only your present, and then undercuts it entirely by having this predictable end to it.
It’s such a poor choice that it takes the wind out of the sails of the film completely. It’s not a brilliant film by any means, and marginally a good one at best, but everything that’s interesting about the film is taken away in one fell swoop by a storyline that doesn’t belong. The choice feels shoe-horned, as if an ending where George winds up a better man but not necessarily with the girl was such a bad idea that the decision was made to compromise the film with a tacked on ending that doesn’t work in any aspect.
The film’s first two acts are about a man trying to find himself and become a better man after being a rich sports star, with all the spoils that entails. This is a film about his redemption and there’s nothing in the first two acts that points to he and his ex-wife needing to be together; if anything it works better as an emphasis to that he screwed it up and needs to be a better man now because he wasn’t then. Trying to get the girl back is something a full film explores, not as a third act that is unexplored for more than an hour of screen time in a film that barely stretches past the 90 minute mark, and Playing For Keeps winds up falling flat after starting out as interesting if flawed comedy.
Director: Gabriele Muccino
Writer: Robbie Fox
Notable Cast: Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Noah Lomax, Dennis Quaid, Uma Thurman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, James Tupper, Judy Greer