‘Playing for Keeps’

In Playing for Keeps Gerard Butler's ex-soccer star watches his son's teamA pretty terrific and good-looking cast performs a full-on charm offensive against a weak screenplay in the soccer comedy “Playing for Keeps” to no avail.

How can you stick Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dennis Quaid and Judy Greer in a comedy and come up so empty?

Lost in the convoluted mess was an okay idea about soccer moms who get the hots for their children’s dreamy hunk of a coach. Looks like an R-rated male fantasy for Judd Apatow or Jay Roach to manufacture.

Yet somewhere in development someone decided the coach needed to have issues. Like an ex-wife and young son whom he coaches so the hero must find ways to turn down these attractive propositions.

Oops, the R-rated fantasy just turned into a PG-13 family comedy. Well, “The Bad News Bears” once worked so why not?

Then somewhere else in development the sports angle more or less got lost, someone interjected a back-slapping philandering businessman and the whole thing became a muddle.

Playing for Keeps' Catherine Zeta-Jones fixes her gaze on the soccer coachWell, men can still eyeball Biel, Thurman, Zeta-Jones and Greer while their dates get plenty of time to watch Butler, who helpfully takes off his shirt frequently.

The director is Gabriele Muccino, an Italian who shuttles between Italian (“The Last Kiss”) and American comedies (“Seven Pounds,” “The Pursuit of Happyness”) but is showing signs of jet lag. He gets one of Butler’s better performances out of him but has nothing to play this off against.

Robbie Fox’s screenplay never finds a focus. Perhaps those same development minions thought Americans aren’t into soccer but at least a little about the sport and coaching style of Butler’s ex-soccer superstar wouldn’t have hurt.

The romanic elements might have clicked too but Butler’s George Dryer spends much of his time fending off the advances of his gorgeous co-stars while trying to make up his mind if he still loves his ex, played by Biel.

So the film comes down to a father-son story where George tries to spend quality time with his young son (Noah Lomax) to get back into the boy’s good graces after his abandonment of the family. But too much time gets frittered away on silly issues like a failed sleepover and nothing about what caused that abandonment in the first place.

A worse distraction is a character played, if that’s the right word, by Quaid. Determined to be the ex-star’s best buddy, his hard-driving anal character is both annoying and superfluous. Indeed he virtually disappears half way through the movie.

Enough sparks exist between Butler and Biel for there to be a genuine sense of regret that their relationship isn’t better explored. For that matter, Greer has yet another one of her amusing supporting roles, in this case a woman who bursts into tears at the least provocation. The movie never gets to the bottom of this.

Thurman and Zeta-Jones play frustrated foxes cruising for fun before life completely passes them by. Again, characters worthy of deeper investigation but they too fall by the wayside.

“Playing for Keeps” demonstrates what can happen when too many people get involved in the development process.

Opens: Friday, Dec. 7, 2012 (FilmDistrict)
Production companies: FilmDistrict in association with Millennium Films present a Misher Films/York Square Prods./Eclectic Pictures/Gerard Butler Alan Siegel Entertainment/Nu Image production
Cast: Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dennis Quaid, Judy Greer, James Tupper, Noah Lomax
Director: Gabriele Muccino
Screenwriter: Robbie Fox
Producers: Jonathan Mostow, Kevin Misher, Gerard Butler, Alan Siegel, Heidi Jo Markel, John Thompson
Executive producers: Peter Schlessel, Avi Lerner, Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, Ed Cathell III, Boaz Davidson
Director of photography: Peter Menzies Jr.
Production designer: Daniel T. Dorrance
Music: Andrea Guerra
Costume designer: Angelica Russo
Editor: Padraic McKinley
Rated PG-13, 105 minute