'For Keeps' surprises - at times

JIM SLOTEK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:03 PM ET

I don't expect great things from a Gerard Butler romantic comedy, given his template-wooing of Katherine Heigl (The Ugly Truth) and Jennifer Aniston (The Bounty Hunter).

But for just a little while, the blandly-titled Playing For Keeps surprises, and suggests it might be something more than another exercise in here's-the-woman-you-belong-with-and-we'll-just-delay-the-inevitable-for-90-minutes-before-you-stop-her-from-getting-on-that-plane.

In fact, this tale - of an ex-FIFA footballer who lands a job as a soccer coach in Virginia, has his pick of America's most alluring and available soccer moms, and schmoozes his way to riches and smalltown glory - reminds the viewer of nothing so much as the Warren Beatty classic Shampoo (minus the political allegory).

Butler's character George Dryer has a high-minded reason to be in a soccer-wasteland - ie: to be near his son, and, not incidentally, his soon-to-be-remarried ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel).

But the movie soon becomes a comedy about selling your soul for the usual price - sex and money. All it takes to have a wad of cash or the keys to a sports car slipped into your hand is to put some country club dad's two-left-footed kid in goal, or let his crow-voiced daughter sing the national anthem. And all it takes to have some drooling soccer mom (the likes of Uma Thurman and Catherine Zeta-Jones) jump your bones is to show up and flex your biceps between bench pep talks.

(Dennis Quaid, incidentally, does a wonderfully oily job as the status-conscious alpha male of Alexandria, Va., who doesn't know soccer, but knows the commercial value of a pet trophy celebrity).

The part of Playing For Keeps that is a PG sex romp is actually entertaining and funny at times. Unfortunately, somebody at the studio must have seen what was going on and said, "Wait a minute, if we don't put a stop to this right now, we might end up with something different, and we can't have that!"

Gabriele Muccino, director of the lugubrious The Pursuit Of Happyness, brings his overbearing moral compass to bear in the last half, setting up - yes - a situation where an out-of-town opportunity threatens the inevitable, impending reunion of George and Stacie, (his tom-cattin' around with every mom in the neighbourhood notwithstanding). Somebody stop that plane, train or car!

By the last act, Playing For Keeps has found its true path on the congested highway of romantic comedy tropes. Improbable things happen to get us to where we knew were going all along. The final "joyously uplifting" scene is so hackneyed and abrupt, you can almost hear the writer sigh in resignation because he couldn't think of anything better.

jim.slotek@sunmedia.ca


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