Gabriele Muccino’s Playing For Keeps is an awful attempt at having a bunch of beautiful Hollywood stars carry a film despite a horrible story and an utter lack of quality direction, leaving viewers to wonder just how all these stars signed on for such a dreadful film.
George (Gerard Butler) was once a soccer superstar, but now he’s broke, unemployed and single. He moves back to where his son and ex-wife (Jessica Biel) are living in an effort to win back their affection and get his life together. He ends up coaching his son’s soccer team and is suddenly the hottest bachelor that the moms/sideline seductresses have ever laid their eyes on.
Although there’s nothing revolutionary to that story, plenty of decent films have been made out of a simple, formulaic approach by providing something new for the audience, even in the most minimal way. That is not the case in Playing For Keeps.
Nothing about the story is original in any way, and the narrative is filled with romantic-comedy cliché after cliché. Usually clichés serve as an easy way out when there’s a hole in the dialogue or plot to be filled, but in Playing For Keeps the clichés simply supplement the holes, meaning that nothing is innovative in the story, yet tons of questions are still left unanswered.
Everything that is answered is blatantly shoved in the audience’s face. From a debt collection call interrupting George’s sportscasting demo to the landlord wondering to himself how George can land so many beautiful women, everything is laid out as obviously as possible. It is as if Muccino has so little faith in the intelligence of his target audience that he feels the need to spell out every subtextual detail, thinking the film would be shown to the soccer team from his movie as opposed to intelligent adults.
The decisions Muccino makes, and those he neglects to make, are baffling. In some scenes the camera switches from static to hand-held so frequently, with no clear reason behind the switch, that it seems Muccino is just flipping a coin for how each take should be filmed. Far too many scenes are spent showing George driving from place to place, a use of screen time that is as unnecessary as it is monotonous. He also feels the need to place a great dramatic emphasis on the final soccer game by dragging out one of the goals to a few slow-motion minutes, forgetting the fact that this isn’t an inspirational sports film, and no one cares about the fortunes of the team.
In terms of the decisions he fails to make, the biggest of all would be what genre Muccino wanted to aim for. Playing For Keeps meanders back and forth between traditional romantic comedy, heartwarming family drama, youth sports film, and teenage sex comedy so ineffectively that it ends up missing all four. The result is a film that has bits of each, unfortunately picking the wrong bits, and therefore providing an incredibly uncomfortable viewing experience.
As for the cast, different actors clearly approach the film with completely different tones in mind. Jessica Biel gives a surprisingly heartfelt and authentic performance, but is completely overshadowed by the utter ridiculousness of the likes of Uma Thurman and Judy Greer. The former acts as if she’s in a middle-school comedy, while the latter gives a performance silly enough for a Saturday Night Live skit – both lacking needed credibility.
As poorly directed as the film is, the script Muccino was working with is no better. The dialogue is bland from start to finish, with no memorable lines at all, and a great opportunity for a meaningful speech completely squandered during George’s ESPN audition. Too bad this wasn’t a baseball comedy, because here would be a great time for a “three strikes and you’re out” joke.
All of the characters are simply set-pieces as opposed to real-feeling characters with any sort of depth beyond the screen. Carl, for example, disappears for the entire second and third acts of the film, only to return at the end for a “shocking” moment that is so convenient and telegraphed it may as well have been written across the screen in bright, blinking neon letters.
It is obvious the main plot of the story is supposed to be about George and Stacie’s reconciliation, but that plot is conveyed so weakly that it blends with the other subplots until there is no way of really telling what the story is supposed to be about. Muccino could have benefited from a much better focus on a straight plot, instead of mixing in so many wasted attempts at comedy/drama.
The film may have been successful if it removed most of the characters, and focused on the relationship between George, Stacie, and their son. In its current form though, Playing For Keeps is a far cry from successful, with the only redeeming bit being an hour and a half of Butler’s sexy Scottish accent. Too bad it is not nearly hypnotic enough to distract from an otherwise abominable experience, nor enough to make the film anything more than forgettable.
Playing For Keeps is an excellent example of talented actors playing down to a script. The story is weak and full of cliches, with nothing new to offer, and the film suffers for it.