It’s comforting to know that American culture has progressed to where soccer routinely joins baseball, football and basketball as a backdrop for forgettable romantic comedies.
“Playing for Keeps” stars Scotsman Gerard Butler as George Dryer, a former U.K. soccer standout. He has relocated to suburban Virginia to be near his young son, Lewis (Noah Lomax), and recently engaged ex-wife, Stacie (Jessica Biel), who is wary of his unreliability.
“You’re like a ticking time bomb with a charming accent,” Stacie says.
With his funds running low and his career pinned on landing a broadcasting job, George gets recruited into coaching his son’s soccer team. He secretly hopes this opportunity can repair his relationship with Stacie, but the gig also presents distractions via the needy divorced moms and equally needy married moms who attend the games.
Despite its snoozy generic title, “Playing for Keeps” turns quite convoluted. The screenplay by Robbie Fox (“So I Married an Axe Murderer”) becomes overstuffed with supporting characters, subplots and genres, veering from sex farce to family drama. Don’t worry, though: It all wraps up with a reconciliation finale that will please the “Sex and the City” crowd.
A story like this is typically kept afloat by personality more than plot. The star-laden cast makes things watchable, especially Butler, who showcases his manly manliness and vagabond charisma. Even when the movie strains sincerity, the shaggy star always comes across as a real person.
Dennis Quaid is also amusing as a cryptically wealthy soccer dad who has no problem throwing around wads of money to ensure his son will play goalie or daughter will sing the national anthem. (George has no qualms accepting the bribes, either.)
Catherine Zeta-Jones turns up as a former anchor who can help the retired athlete earn an audition for ESPN … at a price. Best is Judy Greer (“The Descendants”) as a clingy divorcee prone to sudden bouts of sobbing.
There’s the impression that “Playing for Keeps” might have started as an R-rated project. Italian director Gabriele Muccino (“Seven Pounds”) flirts with edginess as one soccer mom after another crawls into George’s bed, and each new situation emphasizes his immature habits.
Midway through, however, the bawdy humor stops, Quaid’s character all but disappears and the movie dwells on whether sweet, responsible Stacie will once again be swept up in her ex-husband’s whirlwind magnetism.
The genre demands that this couple get back together — for the sake of “true love” or the well-being of their son or whatever. But deep down viewers know it’s a terrible idea.