The most interesting thing about Gerard Butler is that he has spent his career as a Hollywood star avoiding any roles that even remotely resemble the one that actually made him a star. In 300, Butler played the Spartan King Leonidas as an epic hero archetype with the volume turned up to 11, all nonstop speeches and granite abs. Since then, Butler has veered between two personalities: The brutish sociopaths of Gamer and Law Abiding Citizen, and the brutish-but-supposedly-lovable cads of The Ugly Truth and The Bounty Hunter. (The lone exception came in Ralph Fiennes’ little-seen Coriolanus, where Butler gave good Shakespeare as a Leonidas-esque tormented warlord.)
Neither of these personalities is particularly appealing, but in Playing for Keeps, Butler plays a slightly older riff on his cad persona, and the results are initially promising. It helps that the actor has gotten steadily scruffier in his last few movies — indeed, one of the best parts of the movie is that Butler realistically looks like he rolled out of bed right before every take. In Playing, he plays George, a former professional soccer player-turned-failed entrepreneur with dreams of becoming a sportscaster. George is spending time in a lilywhite suburb in order to spend time with his son (freckle-faced Noah Lomax), and to cozy up to his ex (Jessica Biel, frowning in the doorway). In an effort to prove himself as a parent, George winds up coaching his son’s soccer team.
In the early scenes, Butler makes George an endearing wreck of a man, and you’re set up to expect a sports-movie redemption for him: Bad News Bears with a brogue. But the movie forgets about the soccer team, and focuses much more attention on the soccer moms. Judy Greer, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Uma Thurman play desperate-housewife variations — a crying divorcee, a seductive ex-sportscastress, a daffy trophy wife. None of them can keep their hands off George. They flirt with him; they open their souls to him; they try to find him a job; at one point, one of them climbs uninvited into his bed and starts stripping off her clothes.
It could be good fodder for an old-fashioned sex comedy — and each of the actresses does her best with her one allotted character trait. But Playing for Keeps takes place in a tonally incoherent universe, constantly shifting between rom-com farce and mawkish family drama. The central question of the movie becomes: Can George triumph over his inability to stop hot women from throwing themselves at him? C-