Butler’s charm prevents 'Playing for Keeps' from losing

12/06/2012 3:07 PM

12/06/2012 3:09 PM

There really is no point to seeing “Playing for Keeps” unless you would like to lust over Gerard Butler, or would like to be Gerard Butler, or think, at least, that life inside his shoes would be interesting. As a movie, it’s not much. But it’s the best showcase for his charm that Butler has ever had.

In fact, the movie doesn’t merely showcase his charm; its deficiencies work to highlight it. An hour into “Playing for Keeps,” you might wake up to realize vaguely that nothing much has happened, but you might also realize that it has taken a full hour to notice, and start to mind. Until then, it’s pleasant enough to watch this guy ambling and stumbling through life, and the fact that a succession of beautiful co-stars — Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman, Judy Greer and Catherine Zeta-Jones — are ambling along with him doesn’t hurt one bit.

This time he plays a former soccer star, but the main thing to know is that he plays a big handsome Scot, which is what he is, though he has rarely been Scottish on screen. His Scottish accent is rugged and sounds as if he is enunciating despite having a golf ball in his mouth, so you know he’s tough. Now years past his glory days on the field, George (Butler) is a fish out of water living in Virginia, in order to be close to his ex-wife (Biel) and young son.

Usually movies are about people who desperately want something, but for most of “Playing for Keeps,” our hero doesn’t seem to want anything in particular. He needs money and would like to find satisfying work, maybe as a sportscaster. He wants to have a better relationship with his son, who hardly knows him. So he takes on the job of coaching his son’s soccer team, but this is no sports movie about a driven coach. And he seems like he might like to get back with his wife, but he’s not losing sleep over her.

George is just not a person who makes things happen. He’s a big lug that things just happen to, and it really does take cinematic charm to make passivity interesting. Because Butler looks like an effective person — simply standing there — his passivity plays like the conscious choice of a fellow who could throw his weight around, but chooses not to, out of taste or politeness or an unwillingness to upset people. In the meantime, all the soccer moms are flinging themselves at him.

For a trifle — one that probably looked like one on the printed page, too — “Playing for Keeps” somehow attracted a strong cast. Perhaps the appeal was that everyone gets a chance to shine. Dennis Quaid makes a vivid impression as a touchy-feely, hyper-emotional businessman. Greer is very funny as a fragile but erotically driven, newly divorced woman. Zeta-Jones plays a former TV personality — one as seductive as Cleopatra. And Thurman plays an unhappy wife who shows up half-naked in Butler’s bed. Of course, he resists. That man is a saint.

Actually, with all the world available to him, the soccer champ’s growing preoccupation with his ex-wife becomes mystifying, especially in that Biel has a drab role. But Biel does get to act here, and she does quite well, working a careful line that keeps you wondering whether she is over this guy or just protecting herself. It’s a nice performance.

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