You can’t not like The Rock. No matter what foolishness he gets himself into—The Scorpion King, Doom, Vince McMahon’s empire—The Rock looks appropriately self-aware, the patient, poised “straight man” (even when he’s gay, as in Be Cool) in a world gone far too broad. Now that he’s been out of wrestling for a few years, slimmed down so he looks less cartoonish, The Rock’s pleasurable effect is even better, more refined. He’s like Arnold without the roidy chest or Vin Diesel without the self-importance. He’s the Rock, and that’s why you like him.
It’s precisely because you like The Rock that The Game Plan is disquieting. Though he brings the same easy charm that carried him through the nostalgia of Walking Tall and the melodrama of Gridiron Gang, the movie assembled around him is dully formulaic and gratingly calculated. For a precious few minutes at film’s start, The Rock’s Rockness holds sway: he’s Joe Kingman, superstar quarterback for the Boston Rebels. Though he’s a cocky and has never taken the team all the way to a “championship” (the lack of branding underscores the NFL’s refusal to tie in with any product that’s not all its own), his teammates seem to like him. They attend both swanky parties and basketball game nights at his “bachelor pad” (complete with giant TV and his own UnderArmour ad posters), they razz him amiably at practice, and they put up with his selfish insistence on running for touchdowns when receivers are open.
As for Joe, he loves the game, Elvis, and his bulldog Spike. He has a supermodel girlfriend, Tatianna (Kate Nauta), because he should. When she has to run off unexpectedly following a big win, that’s okay with him: he hands her a gift bag from Chanel, which he picks out from a closet full of gift bags, and sends her on her way. Now he has more time for him to watch the ESPN special on Joe Kingman (described as having “ridiculous agility”) and tossing football-shaped doggie biscuits for Spike. “Life holds many pleasures for me,” he watches himself say on TV. “But nothing beats the thrill of playing on that field on Sunday.”
As you’ve guessed by now, Joe’s due for a change of routine. Cue the doorbell and an announcement from his nosy doorman (Jackie Flynn) that a “cute” girl wants to see him. When Joe eagerly opens the door, his eyes focused at supermodel height, he almost misses seven-year-old Peyton (Madison Pettis), standing so very cutely with suitcase in hand. As you’ve guessed by now, she’s the daughter Joe didn’t know he had, come to stay with him for a month while her mother, she says, is bringing water to the “draught-ravaged children of Sudan.” Before you can say, “Here’s my birth certificate,” Joe accepts her story and, against the better judgment of his agent Stella (Kyra Sedgwick, whose broad expressions are on a par with Pettis’), decides to integrate her into his “game plan.” Laying out the rules—what’s off limits, what’s expected, and what’s allowed, all sketched out as if it’s third and long—Joe proceeds as if the child is an accessory he can place where it best shows him off.
(L-R) Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Madison Pettis
Of course, he’ll learn that a daughter needs special attention, that his assumptions about boys and girls are all wrong, and that having a family beyond Spike is really a great and rewarding thing. He’s aided in his lessons-learning by noble wide receiver Sanders (good sport Morris Chestnut, at long last living out the dreams of Boyz N the Hood‘s Ricky), who happens to be a family man who knows something about fast food and car seats, as well as other. Less experienced teammates who fall instantly in love with Peyton because that’s what grown men are supposed to do in movies like this (and because she’s named Peyton, a name they associate with Manning).
It’s easy for them because they only see her being sweet. Joe has to put up with the cornball kiddie pranks too: Peyton puts a tutu on Spike, wreaks havoc with the blender (thus spraying Joe’s favorite broccoli-tuna-egg concoction all over him and her and the spotless kitchen walls), and overloads her bath with bubbles. She also weasels her way into a ballet class with Monique (Roselyn Sanchez), who not only doesn’t recognize Joe’s famous face, but also helps him be a better dad. Step one: allow the daughter to paint his fingernails purple. Step two: play a tree in a performance of “Swan Lake” (this occasions predictable jokes about The Rock in green tights). Step three: he comes to appreciate ballet as being at least as much work as football (demonstrated in a couple of sweaty workout montages), and so he also comes to appreciate Monique.
Just as the perfect family unit appears to be forming, you’re reminded that Peyton has a home elsewhere, though we also find out she sort of lied about that. This will affect Joe’s performance during the championship game—at which he and his team have finally arrived, oh by the way—which in turn affects his commercial endorsements value. Joe has to make a choice: will he signup with a multimillion dollar fast food chain or will he take Peyton’s point, that hamburgers make kids fat? Because Joe is also the Rock, you know that he’ll make the right decision. But oh dear, it’s a clattering, hackneyed ride to that point.