In the pantheon of Great American Sports Movies, very few focus on soccer. Then again, very few Americans focus on soccer in general. Millions of kids might be in the youth soccer system, yet by adulthood they have seemingly forgotten their love of the beautiful game. Whereas the sport is the most beloved in the world, and a way of life overseas, it is more of a cult fanaticism in the States. Major League Soccer, the top-flight American soccer league, is so overshadowed by other sports in this country that very few people probably even noticed when the new season kicked off this past weekend.
Playing for Keeps seems to be trying to fill the gap in the American filmgoer’s consciousness that soccer has the potential to occupy. As a passionate fan of the sport, I admire the film’s frequent mentions of the European Champions League and teams like Celtic and Liverpool. Even better is the film’s focus on often-forgotten Major League Soccer; I had never seen so much DC United paraphernalia anywhere that wasn’t a sporting goods store before. It is nice to see a version of the United States where soccer seems to matter.
Unfortunately, that is about all that is nice about Playing for Keeps. The focus on soccer is the only thing fresh about the plotline, which follows aged football star George Dryer (Gerard Butler) in his quest to reconnect with his young son and his ex-wife (Jessica Biel). Dryer moves to Virginia to be close to his estranged family and to pursue a possible second career as a sportscaster. He ends up coaching the boy’s soccer team and catching the eye of nearly every soccer mom that crosses his path. Since Dryer is played by the dashing and charming Butler, complete with his usual husky Scottish burr and rugged good looks, this isn’t exactly unexpected. Yet that is the problem with Playing for Keeps: nothing is unexpected. It is a cliched, syrupy romantic drama with a few comic twists. Every turn in the plot is visible from miles away as well as groan-inducing.
The cast is surprisingly packed with stars. The delightfully manic Judy Greer shows up as a desperate divorcee who needs Dryer to jump-start her love life. Catherine Zeta-Jones is thrown into the mix as a former sportscaster turned stay-at-home mom who is willing to phone in her connections at ESPN for Dryer if he is willing to get into bed with her. Uma Thurman also shows up as the neglected wife of Dennis Quaid, a wealthy man-about-town who wants to adopt the new soccer coach as a celebrity friend to show off. They are all perfectly fine in their roles despite the film’s many issues; after all, it is the mark of a decent actor to be able to deal with sub-par material. The member of the ensemble who sticks out like a sore thumb is Biel. As Dryer’s first love and the mother of his son, Biel is so bland and lacking in charisma that it is unfathomable why he would go to such lengths to rekindle his romance with her, or how he ever fell in love with her in the first place. This renders his attempts to fend off the advances of the super-sexy Zeta-Jones and Thurman even more unbelievable.
In the end, Dryer is forced to reassess his priorities. Is it his career, or his family? Is it sleeping with tons of women, or just one? You can guess what the answers to those questions are, and therefore, there is really no reason to watch Playing for Keeps. As far as soccer films go, fans are better off sticking to The Damned United and the original British Fever Pitch, and hoping that Hollywood eventually turns out something equally as good.
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES
The single-disc Blu-ray release of Playing for Keeps also includes deleted scenes and two featurettes: one concerning the casting process and one general making-of.
"Playing for Keeps" is on sale March 5, 2013 and is rated PG13. Romance. Directed by Gabriele Muccino. Written by Robbie Fox. Starring Catherine Zeta Jones, Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman.