Odds are you can take it or leave it.
It has been my unfortunate realization as I do these reviews that while there is a definite spectrum of movie quality from so brilliant it might burn out your retinas (Argo) to so dumb it’s like stepping in a bear trap while a troupe of clowns beats you with rubber hoses (Resident Evil), but the sad fact is that spectrum follows a bell curve and the vast majority of films lands right on the hump of mediocrity. It just makes doing reviews something of a grind, since the incredibly brilliant and amazingly stupid movies are always the most fun to write up.
Playing for Keeps not only is in the mediocre zone, but it hits the mean exactly and pretty much is the exact average. The weird thing is I don’t know if it should be on the curve. If it weren’t for some PG-13 language and relatively big Hollywood hitters (Jessica Biel, Dennis Quaid, Uma Thurman) I would have said this was a made for TV movie. The sets are tertiary at best (a house, a soccer field, , a park, a restaurant, and another house to be exact), the camera work and editing competent in that workaday manner that plagues most TV, and the story as blandly predictable and heart-lukewarmingly sort of gratifying as anything you would see on Lifetime.
I did manage to find some entertainment by mentally playing with the perspective. You see, all stories are relative and depend on who you are hearing it from. About 1/3 of the way into this film not only had I figured out exactly how it was going to end but pretty much every scene that was going to have to happen, so I mentally shifted the story about a retired, out of work professional soccer player coming to Virginia to reconnect with his son and romantically swoop his ex wife off her feet before her marriage to another man to the story of a washed out, deadbeat absentee father coming to town to break up the marriage of his ex wife and a decent guy in order to drag her and her son into the same dysfunctional maelstrom that ruined the family the last time around while banging every soccer mom in the state. I predict this is exactly the story the jilted ex fiance will be telling everyone and to be honest he wouldn’t necessarily be incorrect.
(This perspective game, by the way, is what lets me sometimes watch the Return of the Jedi and see it as the downfall of a dedicated public servant (who’s last act in the prequel was the kindly rescue of a horrifically burned and dismembered young man left to die a horrible death by a monk from a creepy order that believes all forms of emotion are bad and set him up in a very complicated and probably expensive exoskeleton/life support suit to keep him alive for decades) who has created a system of law and order wherein most citizens live safe, comfortable lives at the hands of a bunch of disgruntled hippies, malcontents, and walking teddy bears, and the corruption of Darth Vader by the light side of the force. It all depends on which side of the room the camera is on. Empire logo courtesy of the Star Wars tshirt category)
Anyway, the story. George (Gerard Butler-300, How to Train Your Dragon, RocknRolla) is an ex-professional soccer player who has pretty much ruined his former marriage in some ill defined way. He has moved to Virginia to reconnect with his son Lewis (Noah Lomax-Safe Haven, Mad Love, the Walking Dead (awesome!)) and his ex wife Stacie (Jessica Biel-Total Recall, Hitchcock, New Years Eve) who is engaged to be married with her fiance (whom she has been dating for over three years while George was absent) Matt (James Tubber-Mr. Poppers Penguins, Girl Fight, Revenge). His son is on a soccer team that sucks and George opts to start coaching it. There is a really stunted Bad News Bears sub plot that actually had potential but went nowhere. George meets Carl (Dennis Quaid-What to Expect When You’re Expecting, G.I. Joe The Rise of Cobra, Footloose), a psychotic control freak. George also meets a bevy of the most ridiculously hot soccer moms in the history of football and proceeds to bang most of them. I don’t know why I have been wasting my time with trying to build a business and be a decent human being when all I needed to do was develop a Scottish accent and coach a 3rd grade soccer team to hook up with hot women. Why does it seem like most of the advice I have gotten in life has been lies?
Honestly, do I really need to go any further into this story? If you have half a brain you know exactly how it will go. George reconnects with his son and develops his relationship with him. Stacie discovers her feelings for George remain. Poor Matt learns an important lesson on what it means to be both a man-friend and a eunuch. George is faced with a huge life changing decision between his career and his family. The end.
The stars. If it’s remotely possible I care less about soccer than I do about baseball, but like baseball movies I kind of like soccer movies. I guess it’s just sports movies that work for me. One star. For all the bland tripe they were fed as a script all the actors did as good a job as was possible. One star. All the women were incredibly easy on the eyes in all circumstances. I’m moving to Virginia I guess. One star. The story was blandly pleasant, like being out of coffee on a cold day and just drinking hot water. If this had been a made for TV movie it would have been perfect in the feel good category. One star. Total: four stars.
The black holes. This film couldn’t have been more predictably if instead of previews before the film they had just showed us the entire film. One black hole. This film had almost nothing in the way of emotional ups or downs, and not much of an arc to be honest. You kind of dive into the story with nothing to set it up and then motor through it in second gear. One black hole. Bland as the blandiest white paint upon a smooth wall of epic blandness. One black hole. A big part of the story seems to be that there are fabulous jobs available in the world of soccer sports casting (Americans don’t generally care about soccer). One black hole. The whole “George is a washed out bum here to ruin a good family” fantasy plot I had playing in my head is not that far from the actual story, and kind of drains a lot of the sympathy you have for him as a character. One black hole. Total: five black holes.
I’m going to use my old “irksome but not black hole worthy” category to take a moment to talk about facial hair. There must be a new clause in movie contracts (probably called the Stratham clause for obvious reasons) that certain male actors insist on that requires that they maintain the same rugged level of scruffy facial hair for the entirety of the film. Gerald Butler is exactly the same level of unshaven throughout the movie. Now, for all you female and pre-adolecent readers out there let me disabuse the illusion that this is even remotely possible. Butlers facial hair looked about a week past a shave. Here’s the thing: in the course of what looked like several weeks if not months of movie times he would have either at some point had to have shaved or let it all grow in to a full on Wookie beard. There is no way to maintain the exact same level of unshaven for months without extremely careful grooming. Sorry but these things annoy me.
Anyway, a grand total of one black hole. Like most mediocre movies there is nothing here to drag you into the theater but once inside there is nothing pushing you out. Should you see it? I’ve said “meh” before and I’ll say it again right now. If you are desperate for something to keep your brain cells alive this will do it, but if you are looking to get them actually firing it won’t. Date movie? Absolutely. If you are dating a woman who is extremely mainstream and you aren’t sure how she will react to something with a pulse this could be the perfect movie. Bathroom break? Once again a movie that you can pretty much relieve yourself anywhere and not miss anything, mainly because odds are you have already played out the entire movie in your head. I’d say the scene where George goes to the arcade and plays air hockey against Stacie and Lewis is particularly miss-able.
Thanks for reading. Still super slammed at work but I will try to see something else soon. I also have an idea for a couple of funny blog rants that I might crank out. Follow me on Twiiter @Nerdkungfu. If you have any comments on this movie or my review feel free to post them here. If you have questions or suggestions on other topics feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Talk to you soon.