Gerard Butler prepares to hit the practice field in
Gerard Butler prepares to hit the practice field in "Playing for Keeps."

I’m not sure what convinced Gerard Butler and decision-makers in Hollywood that his best move was to start portraying brash Americans. Whatever it was, it has done him no favors in the past few years, as his acting has steadily worsened through bad romances (The Ugly Truth), thrillers (Law Abiding Citizen), and inspirational flicks (Chasing Mavericks). His latest movie, the nonsensically titled Playing for Keeps, goes away from this by having him work in his own Scottish accent and portray a guy whose confidence has taken a few hits. As a result, both Butler and his movie are considerably more tolerable. This romantic comedy still runs off the rails, though.

Butler portrays George Dryer, a retired Scottish soccer star who now lives in the Washington, D.C. area to be close to his 9-year-old son Lewis (Noah Lomax). His athletic fortune sunk into bad investments, George is now renting a rich guy’s guest house and trying to break into sportscasting. His career plans take a left turn when he realizes that Lewis’ soccer coach is a total ignoramus, and he takes over the team.

The movie gets off to a fizzy start. With no experience in coaching, George discovers that he loves teaching the kids. The coaching position also brings him to the attention of attractive soccer moms who are quite willing to fall into bed with the rugged ex-jock with the bright smile and foreign accent. George quite likes that, too. Butler is agreeably shaggy and loose running things on the practice field. (Like more than a few British actors, Butler grew up playing soccer and has no small amount of skill.) The likes of Uma Thurman and Catherine Zeta-Jones play the aforementioned moms, though it’s Judy Greer who outshines her more famous co-stars (she does that a lot, I’ve noticed) as a weepy basket case of a divorcée. Director Gabriele Muccino, best known on our shores for The Pursuit of Happyness, keeps the comedy humming for a while.

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Unfortunately, the story hinges on George winning back Lewis’ mother Stacie (Jessica Biel) and keeping her from marrying another guy (James Tupper). This is regrettable for a great many reasons. Biel is deeply uninteresting as always, but the movie wouldn’t be fixed with someone else cast in her role. Romance seems to bring out the worst in Muccino — see his Italian film The Last Kiss — and he steers the proceedings straight into a bog of heartfelt speeches. If all that isn’t enough, we’re treated to yet another movie where the guy has to give up his dream job (in this case, an announcing gig at ESPN) to prove how devoted he is to his family. Oh, spare me. It’s not as if he’s captaining a nuclear submarine. Couldn’t he telecommute for at least part of the week? Of all Playing for Keeps’ shortcomings, it’s pretending that seeking professional fulfillment makes you a selfish bastard that earns this movie a red card.



Playing for Keeps

Starring Gerard Butler and Jessica Biel. Directed by Gabriele Muccino. Written by Robbie Fox. Rated PG-13.