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'Playing for Keeps' shoots, misses

6/17/2014 By James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies

At the finale of "Playing for Keeps," the new romantic comedy starring Gerard Butler as an ex-soccer pro looking to turn around his life and reconcile with an ex-wife (Jessica Biel) and son (Noah Lomax), I didn't get up from my seat in the theater for a few moments. My failure to rise was not because the film was enveloping or gripping or profoundly moving. Rather, the slight, lightweight and small-scale film I'd seen beforehand had me briefly convinced I must be on a cross-country airplane voyage, and my subconscious was waiting for the captain to turn off the seatbelt sign before I stood up.

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"Playing for Keeps" has, to be sure, a sterling cast of actors who are considered charming -- Butler is George, an ex-soccer pro from Scotland now exiled to Virginia so he might be close enough to his son, Lewis, to better let him down more conveniently. Lewis' mom, Stacie, would like to see George be more reliable, but he's too busy trying to dodge creditors and make an audition tape to be a sportscaster to be shamed into showing up. That is, of course, until the coach of Lewis' soccer team is revealed as so slack and indifferent that George steps in at practice, and then gets handed the position of coach thanks to his combination of skills, attitude and actually caring about soccer.

Coaching not only brings Lewis and Beth both closer to George -- and George closer to the man he'd like to be -- but it also gets him more action than you see in the Omaha beach landing section of "Saving Private Ryan," as a variety of shapely soccer moms throw themselves at him (including Judy Greer, Uma Thurman and Catherine Zeta-Jones). Can George balance blossoming feelings with burgeoning lusts?

To praise the one element in director Gabriele Muccino's film that works, Lomax's performance as Lewis is excellent. A lot of times, child performances -- good and bad -- play and feel like they're actually adult actors struck by a shrink ray. That's not the case here. Lomax makes Lewis feel like a real kid, and a kid struggling with the divorce of his parents and their separation.  It's too bad director Muccino and screenwriter Robbie Fox couldn't provide similar material and space for the grown-up actors in the cast.

The film culminates in both a big soccer match and the question of if Butler and Biel will reunite. In this regard, the best metaphor for the film isn't a soccer match, but rather a basketball performance by the Harlem Globetrotters on a night when half the Globetrotters have the flu, limping and coughing toward the predetermined end result. The supporting cast performers, like Zeta-Jones, Thurman, and Dennis Quaid as a wealthy booster and jealous man, get to have a little fun, but at the same time, it's also stunning to look at some of the names in this cast and how little they actually do. An alternate title for this film could be "How the Mighty Have Fallen."

Muccino takes it a little easier on the heartstrings than in his previous films "The Pursuit of Happyness" and "Seven Pounds," but being more subtle and less glum than either of those Will Smith-led efforts is hardly much of an achievement. "Playing for Keeps" wants to run and kick feel-good moments through the goalposts, but it limps and wheezes from the opening faceoff until its final whistle, with a lot of effort expended to earn, and make, very few points.

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James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at,,,, and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.

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