“What are you doing here?” At the moment, at the start of Playing for Keeps, “here” is a pawnshop in Virginia. And George (Gerard Butler) has something like an answer for the question posed by the proprietor (Ritchie Montgomery), who’s looking over his none-too-impressive selection of soccer jerseys and cleats. He’s here, George says, because his nine-year-old son Lewis (Noah Lomax) is here: dad means to spend some time with him now, having missed most of the boy’s life thus far. And so he needs to sell some of his own gear—worn on the field alongside David Beckham—in order to pay rent. When George complains that the $300 he’s offered isn’t enough, the shop owner nods, then adds he’d do better “If you had some LeBron James.”
George is a has-been, you see, but if he knows he can’t dribble and score, he’s not quite aware of what he means to do other than that. He’s lived for so long off his celebrity that even though he stopped playing back in 2005, following an ankle injury, he’s not yet found another gig. He imagines he might make it to TV, as a sportscaster: after all, he’s got an appealing Scottish brogue and his hair is shaggy. He’s also desperate, a point hammered home when, as he’s recording a sportscasting demo, his concentration is broken by a phone call from a debt collector.
All this is to say that George is “here” in order to be redeemed. At first it’s not clear precisely why he’s here now, until Lewis lets slip that his mom, Stacie (Jessica Biel), is about to be remarried, to Matt (James Tupper), a nice enough but wholly bland fellow. (It doesn’t help that his part is comprised of calling to Stacie from off-screen or hovering in the doorway as George drops Lewis off). It’s not so much that the impending nuptials news motivates George, but it does send this formulaic film grinding into gear.
Grinding is rather an overriding metaphor in Playing for Keeps. This isn’t to say that George can’t drive his vintage Alfa Romeo convertible, but it does make a bit of noise, and he is awfully fond of another prominently placed car, a fire-red Ferrari belonging to Carl (Dennis Quaid), father of one of the kids on the soccer team George starts coaching. Oh, yeah: that would be another instance of grinding, the poundingly convenient local need for a soccer coach, which George fills instantaneously, as he has his own, already noted, needs.
As coach, he not only impresses Carl enough so the older man bestows on him the gift of driving his car, but also Carl’s wife Patti (Uma Thurman) and several other soccer moms, including new divorcée Barb (Judy Greer) and Denise (Catherine Zeta-Jones), an ex-sportscaster who flaunts her various assets, including her lingering connections in the industry. The moms appear as something like a pack, cheering from the bleachers or stalking the sidelines, gossiping and competing amongst themselves, while poor George can only wait for them to show up on his doorstep, one by one. Of course, in such moments he is helpless, waiting for each inevitable clinch and lip-lock and fade to black.
It’s a remarkably tedious business. And as you, in turn, wait for George to be found out, scolded, and summarily forgiven, you might distract yourself by attending to completely un-compelling plot gaps, like, why is Stacie marrying Matt? Why is George unable to contact sports news people himself, given the reactions he solicits wherever he goes? Where did this community find its original soccer coach, whose cell phone is attached to his ear in the two scenes where he appears? What are the other parents thinking, as they watch women fling themselves at George, essentially on the field? Or maybe you can ponder whose bright idea it was to send Carl off into some off-screen drunken brawl, so that he might call George from lock-up, looking rumpled and distraught and wholly uninteresting, and incidentally, in need of bail money. And so Carl sends his new best buddy George—the coach he’s paying off to ensure that his middling player son gets on the field and that his excruciating singer daughter gets to perform the anthem—to pick up a wad of cash at his mansion, where Patti is waiting, teary and eager and—oh my god—what is Uma Thurman doing here?
Of course, you might ask the same of every person on screen, including George’s landlord Param (Iqbal Theba), who asks for his money and then spends the rest of the movie watching George from his window, wondering—out loud, for your benefit—how this guy can score so many beautiful ladies. You might wonder why Param cares and why he’s talking to you, partly serving as your peeping-tommish stand-in and partly as exceedingly un-comic comic relief. You might ask it of Zeta-Jones or Greer, both of whom must have better things to do with their time and careers.
You might especially ask this question of Biel, who long ago made an apparently principled argument about being confined by a role, in order to extricate herself from the role and a contract. You might wonder what her 17-year-old self would say to the self that signed on to play Stacie, confined here to being the girl who must be won back as a part of George’s process. This means she’s in for some montagey business—a happy sequence at a game arcade with Lewis and George, a sadder one where she watches father and son practice soccer in the pouring rain. She also has to make her way through a couple of encounters with George alone, one where he takes her to lunch at a crab place, so she can pound and suck shells as he pledges his troth, and another set in the bridal shop dressing room where she’s trying on her dress—alone. He busts in, pledges some more troth, and she begs him, tearfully, to let her go.
This last is a painful scene in any number of ways, not least being its pile-on of clichés. But a primary pain emerges in watching Biel and Butler, who can, in fact, do their jobs well, being burdened so unjustly and so interminably—because they are, after all, here.