Aiming to be warm and funny, 'Playing for Keeps' misses mark

Paradox: If Gerard Butler exudes rakish charm and Jessica Biel a charming flintiness, then why is Playing for Keeps so utterly charmless?

This saga of a former soccer star coaching his son's team in order to worm his way back into the heart of his ex-wife aims to be warm and funny. Alas, it is mechanical and exhausting, like a windup toy of a monkey crashing together cymbals for 106 minutes while incrementally winding down.

If that makes Butler the monkey, so be it.

A credits sequence introduces George (Butler) as a onetime soccer great who once tangled with David Beckham. Now divorced and broke in suburban Virginia, George has weekly visitation of Lewis (Noah Lomax), his adorably freckled 9-year-old, who lives with Mom (Biel) and her boyfriend.

When George steps in to coach Lewis' soccer team, he becomes a magnet for soccer moms. This starry group that includes redhead Judy Greer, blond Uma Thurman, and brunet Catherine Zeta-Jones could form their own team, the Cougars. Conveniently, Greer and Zeta-Jones are single.

Not so Thurman, married to Generic Rich Guy Dennis Quaid, who delivers what is by light-years the worst performance of an otherwise distinguished career.

So indifferently made and edited is Playing for Keeps that it's fair to identify filmmaker Gabriele Muccino (The Pursuit of Happyness) as its mis-director. Outside of feature debuts one rarely sees such choppy rhythms and ill-timed comedy.

This is one of those films during which, repeatedly, a character gets in a car, drives to another destination, and gets out of the car for no apparent plot purpose. Take out these transitional scenes and spare the audience 30 minutes of impatience. The autos, an Alfa Romeo and a Ferrari, are nice enough, but is this a movie or a sports-car pageant?

If the latter, I suppose the Alfa Romeo gets Miss Congeniality.

When not focused on cougars and cars exceeding speed limits, the film has a few pleasant moments involving Biel and Butler. Yet even their combined charm is done in by the script from Robbie Fox (So I Married an Ax Murderer), alternately salacious and family-friendly. In the end, the PG-13 film is too crude for both demographics.

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