The idea underlying “Playing for Keeps,” the new romantic comedy starring Gerard Butler, is basic: A well-toned guy who is good with kids is the ultimate aphrodisiac for sex-starved soccer moms. Three very good actresses are squandered to prove the point.
And yet, like the former soccer star played by Butler — all hard abs, easy smiles and golden curls, his Scottish brogue set free — the film has some of the right moves.
There is cool footage of game-winning kicks, a kid anyone would adore, and Butler’s playboy/athlete who seems serious about unearthing his decent side.
Directed by Gabriele Muccino (“The Pursuit of Happyness”) and written by Robbie Fox, there is a story here, but more than anything else “Playing for Keeps” is out to score a feel-good moment in every single scene — no exaggeration.
George Dryer (Butler) is a still-hunky guy with a rakish charm, now a few years past his pro-playing prime. He’s turned up in small-town Virginia out of a job and intent on getting to know his young son Lewis (Noah Lomax) and possibly winning back his ex, Stacie (Jessica Biel).
In a very predictable setup to this very predictable film, Stacie is about to marry a much steadier — read boring — guy in Matt (James Tupper). Tupper has been stripped of every ounce of his “Men in Trees” macho and poses no threat. Thank goodness kids are in the picture; puppies and kittens probably should have been considered.
The local sportscasting gig George hopes to land isn’t panning out and Lewis’ soccer team is in desperate need of a good coach, so — spoiler alert (just kidding) — George is drafted to coach the kid’s team. Butler and Lomax turn out to be a convincing father and son. George’s attempts to turn into a more responsible grown-up — one his son will respect — exposes a more vulnerable side to Butler than we typically see. Lomax holds his own on the emotional front, big sad eyes registering years of disappointment when dad lets him down once again.
But any topical relevance tied to absentee father issues is short-lived. All those panting soccer moms keep turning up to complicate things. Technically this is where the comedy is supposed to come from, but the caricatures are so clumsy that it’s more of a nails-on-blackboard experience.
The longest nails belong to Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Denise. She is an impeccably turned-out flirty former sports broadcaster, whose promise to hook George up with ESPN comes with strings attached. Judy Greer sans any of the nuance of her betrayed wife in “The Descendants” plays a weepy-clingy single mom. The hardest to take is Uma Thurman’s Patti, a society wife whose desire to seduce George is merely to get even with her philandering husband, Carl (a crazed Dennis Quaid). Meanwhile Carl is a boorish big-money guy nursing a man-crush on George and hoping cash and the loan of his red Ferrari will help the bromance along.
To be fair, Butler’s George has some chemistry with most of the moms, just not the mom that matters. That particular twist is not one the film intends, I am sure. Biel easily pulls off the sporty, mom-next-door look for Stacie, but she never crosses over into still-madly-in-love-with-the-guy territory, which is where the film is headed from the outset.
Despite a string of emotional moments that Butler lays at her feet, including teary eyes, the actress never warms up in any believable way. It’s a particular disappointment since Stacie is the only female character who doesn’t descend completely into stereotype.
Of late, Butler has been on a fairly steady diet of roles playing the good guy with flaws in marginal movies — the latest, “Chasing Mavericks,” is still in theaters. Although his battle-ready leaders of “300" and “Coriolanus” remain among his best work, the softer side he gets to in George suggests Butler has real romantic leading-man potential — in ways that the supposed to be hot, but not, “Bounty Hunter” opposite Jennifer Anniston never was.
At some point you hope the actor will find a movie that will give him the right material to make hearts truly beat faster. Until then, it appears we’ll have to settle for films with more flaws than his characters.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexual situations, language and a brief intense image
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: In general release