As Hollywood movies increasingly strive for immaculate blankness, they have come to resemble Rorschach ink blots. For example, Playing for Keeps, a new movie about a divorced couple who just might reunite: Is it a heartwarming romantic drama? Or a cynical sex and sports comedy? There is no wrong answer, dear ticket buyer.
Similar questions can be posed about the lead performers, Gerard Butler and Jessica Biel. Does his performance display easygoing charm, or just the laziness of a big-screen sitcom specialist who is also one of the movie's producers? Does her array of indulgent smiles and occasional tears constitute subtlety, or is the two-note characterization just all she could make of Robbie Fox's bland script?
Playing for Keeps relies heavily on the personal appeal of Butler (crinkly eyes, Scottish accent) and Biel (pert nose, perfect teeth), and barely at all on the paper-thin roles they play. Likability is key; characterization superfluous. The movie is less kind, however, to supporting players Uma Thurman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dennis Quaid and Judy Greer, all of them overqualified for the caricatures they play.
When the story begins, vaguely roguish former European soccer star George (Butler) has just moved to D.C.'s Virginia suburbs, hoping to re-establish his relationships with ex-wife Stacie (Biel) and their 9-year-old son, Lewis (Noah Lomax). Exactly why the marriage ended is left obscure, since it would be too troublingly human for either ex to have done something bad.
Stacie is about to remarry, but viewers needn't take that plot strand — or her nonentity of a fiance — seriously. The wedding is as unlikely as George's possible move to Connecticut to work for ESPN, or even his planned trip into town with Lewis to see "our beloved D.C. United." Neither suits the movie's story, or its modest budget.
George is broke, but instead of landing a job as a local TV sportscaster, he becomes the coach of Lewis' soccer team. Inevitably, if almost incidentally, he turns the squad into a powerhouse. The new gig allows George to bond with his boy. But it also introduces him to troublesome soccer parents, all farcically overplayed.
Quaid impersonates a rich, manipulative hustler who is prepared to buy his son a slot as goalie. He's a serial adulterer who retains a detective to follow his wife (Thurman) so she can't stray. Of course, she heads straight for George's bed — but that could get crowded, since the coach is also being pursued by two other sexually frustrated suburban housewives, a weepy divorcee (Greer) and an ex-sportscaster (Zeta-Jones) with an intermittent Deep South accent.
These depictions of predatory middle-aged hussies is the most retro thing about the movie, but hardly the only one. Its Northern Virginia (filmed in small-town Louisiana) is decades behind the reality, from the rural two-lane roads to a kids' soccer team without any Latino or Asian players.
Director Gabriele Muccino is an Italian who came to Hollywood's attention when his The Last Kiss was remade in English. He directed two Will Smith vehicles, The Pursuit of Happyness and Seven Pounds, both of which were sappy but had more style than Playing for Keeps.
But style can be a risky thing in a movie like this, which aspires above all to inoffensiveness. Originally titled Playing the Field, which was deemed too racy, this rom-com would have been more aptly renamed Running Out the Clock.