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Gerard Butler in "Playing for Keeps," in theaters now.
Gerard Butler in "Playing for Keeps," in theaters now.

"Playing for Keeps" not a keeper

I've been sitting in the same spot for the past two hours attempting to come up with a nice way to put my feelings about "Playing for Keeps," the latest stalled romantic star vehicle for Gerard Butler. But I just can't.

"Playing for Keeps" is soul-sucking. It is almost devious in its blandness. The film's only remarkable feature is how crushingly unremarkable it is. Not a performance sticks out. Not a moment sticks out. My mind keeps replaying the movie in my head, trying to find something to love or hate but instead just finding apathy. I'd say that "Playing for Keeps" dares you to care, but I don't think it dares to do anything at all.

Butler, still somehow riding his fame from "300," plays George Dryer, a former soccer star who dropped off the face of the planet after an ankle injury made him leave the professional game. Now, he spends his nights attempting to make a demo reel for ESPN, barely making his rent payments and trying to win back the hearts of his son Lewis (Noah Lomax, adequately adorable) and his ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel).

Inspiration knocks or, rather, kicks (Ugh, I hate myself for that pun) when George witnesses his son's dysfunctional soccer practice, led by a horribly inept and distracted fellow parent. George takes over as coach, turning the band of lovable misfits into Real Madrid. He also starts catching the eyes of the various bored soccer moms in attendance (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Judy Greer and Uma Thurman) and not just due to his fancy footwork. Dennis Quaid also shows up as Thurman's high-strung rich husband who gifts Dryer with an envelope of money and a Ferrari. Because that's what rich people do, I guess.

Will George be able to overcome the horny soccer moms' endless come-ons and win his way back into his ex-wife's heart? And what of the job opportunity across the country at ESPN? And why am I staring into my empty Junior Mints box in the hopes of finding something remotely interesting?

Director Gabriele Muccino's previous American efforts, "The Pursuit of Happyness" and "Seven Pounds," were accused of pulling on the heartstrings too hard. In some strange response to that criticism, Muccino seems unwilling to do anything at all in "Playing for Keeps." The jokes, the romance and the plot points all hit with remarkable thuds. The only thing attempting to wring some emotion is the cloying score, which tries its best to make up for the film's oppressive flatness. The result is like eating cardboard with a side of Pixy Stix and caramel.

Muccino doesn't get much support from his cast. Butler seems like a nice guy, but he adds nothing to his role. It's becoming more and more apparent that his breakout role in "300," which really only required abs and the ability to yell catchphrases, wasn't quite the star-making turn we thought it might be. Not that his script choices (see "Playing for Keeps," "Chasing Mavericks," almost anything he's done since "300") help his cause.

As the temptations throwing themselves mindlessly at Butler, Zeta-Jones, Greer and Thurman don't have much to do. The always-welcome Greer is the only one who makes much of an impression, but the character is still not much to speak of. As the conflicted ex-wife, Biel is the only character with any substance (or the script's feeble attempt at substance), but the "7th Heaven" alum is also the weakest actress in the film. Everything is skin-deep, like she knows what a particular emotion looks like but not what it feels like.

Together, this band of lifeless drones sleepwalk through Robbie Fox's hodge-podge screenplay, his first since a 1994 Pauly Shore movie, in case you needed any more reasons to avoid this mindless distraction. The story attempts to juggle several plotlines and characters, but it's all for naught. "Playing for Keeps" is all cliches, none of them interesting. When a romance gets derailed by a typical miscommunication that could be solved with a simple sentence (a trope from approximately every dumb romantic comedy in history), my eyes rolled right out of my skull.

I'll give "Playing for Keeps" this: It's generally pleasant. Even when things are supposedly in the dumps, everything is all smiles, albeit of the blank variety. The film qualifies as nice, but nice is very different from entertaining or interesting. As it stands, nice is the only thing stopping "Playing for Keeps" from causing mind-numbing hatred. Just mind-numbing.


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