A modestly affecting reconciliation drama wrapped in a so-so sports movie by way of a misogynistic romantic comedy, “Playing for Keeps” can’t stop tripping all over itself. Returning to Hollywood filmmaking after his 2010 Italian laffer “Kiss Me Again,” helmer Gabriele Muccino doesn’t go as spectacularly astray as he did in 2008’s “Seven Pounds,” but this cluttered tale of a past-his-prime soccer player trying to win back his ex-wife and son still hits too many false notes to realize its core emotional potential. Toplined by Gerard Butler but distinguished by Jessica Biel, the FilmDistrict release should score middling returns.
An opening sequence uses cleverly degraded faux-video footage to show studly George Dryer (Butler) at the mid-’90s height of his soccer career. Several years later, he’s living in a Virginia suburb, struggling to make the rent and attempting to re-establish a connection with his former wife, Stacie (Biel), and their young son, Lewis (Noah Lomax).
Stacie, who’s about to remarry, has made peace with George, and encourages him to spend time with his son. Conveniently enough, Lewis’ soccer team needs a coach, and his deadbeat dad fits the bill perfectly. Too perfectly: George proves popular not just with the kids, but with their single and/or unhappily married moms, who just can’t get enough of the tousle-haired athlete and his irresistible accent.
It’s at this point that “Playing for Keeps,” after barreling along in conventional but inoffensive fashion, devolves into an unfunny parade of female sexpots, mystifyingly played by actresses one would have assumed to be well above this level of mistreatment. Robbie Fox’s flailing script contrives to have George fend off the advances of a weepy, clingy divorcee (Judy Greer), a frustrated housewife (Uma Thurman) and, worst of all, a scheming temptress (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who just so happens to be in a position to land George an ESPN sportscaster gig. One half expects Jennifer Connelly to turn up as a lovelorn FIFA referee.
These caricatures achieve little, apart from perhaps flattering star-producer Butler’s vanity, and they hardly leave the viewer in a receptive mood for the more tolerable bonding scenes between George and Lewis, who has clearly inherited some of his dad’s soccer genes. While Butler and young Lomax build an engaging enough rapport, Muccino, who dealt with father-son relations much more sensitively in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” seems content to turn Lewis’ feelings on and off at will, dramatizing his plight with all the emotional commitment of a light switch.
Butler, playing his second athletic father figure of the season (after “Chasing Mavericks”), is solid enough, and gets to speak with his native brogue, though his scruffy, mildly charming meathead routine is starting to wear thin. It’s Biel who almost singlehandedly elevates the picture to a realm of honest feeling: Providing a classy corrective to her ill-served distaff co-stars, the actress makes her character smart, tough, yet still achingly vulnerable, signaling years of long-suffering backstory with her eyes alone. Biel is so good that, when the time inevitably comes for Stacie to choose between the two men in her life, one yearns for her to consider herself first.
Despite its relatively straightforward story elements, “Playing for Keeps” never coheres, undone by its wobbly tone and weakness for tidily artificial moments and plot developments. Tech credits are as generic as the pic’s title (changed from the racier original, “Playing the Field”).