Awful ‘Playing for Keeps’ Wastes Talent of Notable Cast

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Average: 1 (1 vote) Oscarman rating: 1.5/5.0
Rating: 1.5/5.0

CHICAGO – When will the movie universe stop lionizing the upper middle class and their “problems” as a standard for storytelling? The idiotic crawl of “Playing for Keeps” is a prime example of that style, a sad exercise in contradictions that pass for narrative. Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Dennis Quaid and Catherine Zeta-Jones get punked by the script.

The four actors listed above have been stellar in other films, Jones even having an Oscar on her mantle. They are all getting a bit older, perhaps having issues with getting the right scripts in their agent’s hands. But man, there was nothing on the written page in this movie, unless it was radically changed during production, that would have a sensible and bankable actor give it a whirl. In what could have been the exploration of some current family issues involving divorce, custody and forgiveness, devolves into Gerard Butler getting the opportunity to bed some lovelies – almost including Dennis Quaid – in a suburb that doesn’t exist.

George (Butler) is an international ex-soccer star who has somehow ended up broke and living in Virginia. He has moved there to be closer to his son Lewis (Noah Lomax), and still carries a torch for his ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel). George is sort of lost, and there is an interesting scene in the beginning where he is making a bad audition tape in hopes to be a soccer analyst for a local station. His scattershot visitations of his son becomes problematic, and this is solved by having him become coach of Lewis’s soccer team (why he hadn’t been doing that all along is not explained).

Gerard Butler, Noah Lomax
Players: George (Gerard Butler) and Son Lewis (Noah Lomax) in ‘Playing for Keeps’
Photo credit: FilmDistrict

This unleashes the ardor of the single divorcees and unhappy wives in the bleachers, including Patti (Uma Thurman), Barb (Judy Greer) and Denise (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Barb wants a fling with George and gets it, Denise wants a fling in exchange for a better audition tape, and gets it, Patti wants to sleep around her husband Carl (Dennis Quaid), but doesn’t get it because her rich man hubby has a tail on her. Carl also befriends George for reasons not explained and gives the soccer coach an expensive car. It’s all just another day in the Virginia suburbs of America.

The hunky nature of Butler is the appeal in the film, and the story does a hundred contortions to make his character seem like the victim of circumstances, rather than any kind of cad for sleeping around. He’s so beautiful a man the ladies can’t help themselves. Is this 2012? This sheds a dim light on the notion of self-respect, and adds a bit of sexism into a modern setting where the issues of monogamy are a bit more complex. Adding this complexity to the story might have saved it, but screenwriter Robbie Fox took the low road to Hunksville.

Another element that is perplexing is the use of name actors as props in the story. They’ve all made better choices before and it’s hard to imagine them green lighting their participation in this script. Dennis Quaid as Carl is particularly odious, bragging about his loose affairs while having his wife Patti tailed by private dicks. Quaid plays Carl as a loose cannon, but none of his explosions make any sense. Uma Thurman as Patti seems drugged, but still looks damn good. Her body reveal to George was a reminder of her legendary reveal in “Dangerous Liasons” 24 years ago. Judy Greer, coming off her better character in last year’s “The Descendants,” is reduced to a scatterbrained one night stand in this film. The law of diminishing returns for the crowded field of character actors is a cruel reality.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is also subject to scrutiny for her role in this. She has been all over the news in the last couple years due to her struggle in mental acuity, and then takes on two roles that question her balance. She had a maniacal expression as a crazy evangelist in “Rock of Ages’ earlier in the year, and in “Playing for Keeps” she has a “give me a close-up, but not too close” air about her. Middle age offers a jousting-the-windmill challenge for the brand name performer, and the bell for the next round is ringing for Jones.

Catherine Zeta-Jones
Not Too Close: Denise (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in ‘Playing for Keeps’
Photo credit: FilmDistrict

But mainly it’s the story that does disservice to all the participants. Noah Lomax has to portray the lovable moppet between his parent’s custody rants, and Jessica Biel has to decide whether she loves her hunk still. Argggh, what a dilemma. How do you think it turns out? Yep, don’t waste your time unless you love frustration with your popcorn.

This type of film is categorized by the term “Upper Middle Class Porn.” The audience experiences the McMansions, luxurious foreign sports cars and fitted boutique clothing of the principal actors, all the while indulging in their “problems,” which are solved because seemingly they’re better equipped for the long haul. Those Ferraris don’t drive themselves into a ditch, you know.

“Playing for Keeps” opens everywhere on December 7th. Featuring Gerard Butler, Noah Lomax, Jessica Biel, Dennis Quaid, Uma Thurman, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Judy Greer. Screenplay by Robbie Fox. Directed by Gabriele Muccino. Rated “PG-13” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2012 Patrick McDonald,

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