Gerard Butler is supposed to be a movie star. The camera loves him, he’s got a great head of hair and he comes off like someone you might actually want to watch on the big screen for 90 minutes.
The only thing standing in his way seems to be his actual films; after sitting through the likes of “The Ugly Truth,” “Chasing Mavericks,” “The Bounty Hunter” and “Law Abiding Citizen,” I began formulating conspiracy theories involving a shadowy cabal of Hollywood suits who were determined to destroy his career after Butler flirted with some studio head’s wife at a party or cut someone off at the valet stand at a Beverly Hills bistro.
Now comes the dreadful “Playing for Keeps,” and since Butler is credited as a producer (one of 14, granted, but a producer nonetheless), my conspiracy-theory theory is totally blown. In any event, this rock-stupid combination of family schmaltz and horny-MILF male fantasy does this charismatic leading man (and everyone else involved) no favors.
Butler stars as George, a washed-up Scottish former soccer pro. Once a globe-trotting celebrity, he’s now in a rented guest house in suburban Virginia so he can be close to his young son Lewis (Noah Lomax), who lives with George’s ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel). While George entertains fantasies of becoming a sportscaster, he takes on the task of coaching Lewis’ pee-wee soccer team, and none too soon: The current coach is the one person on the planet who apparently knows even less about the sport than I do. (He gives his young charges the useless suggestion “Kick with your toes” about 20 times before George finally steps in to correct him.)
Cue the horde of sex-starved soccer moms, who collectively can’t wait to get into George’s cup. Saddled with these embarrassing roles is a bevy of too-good-for-this actresses, including Judy Greer (getting far more screen time than she had in “The Descendants” with only 1/1000th a character to play), Catherine Zeta-Jones and Uma Thurman, the latter playing the frustrated wife of rich jerk Dennis Quaid.
In the rotten script by Robbie Fox (“So I Married an Axe Murderer”), directed by Gabriele Muccino (“Seven Pounds,” “The Pursuit of Happyness”) with all the grace of a demolition derby, we’re supposed to root for George and Stacie to get back together, even though all signs indicate that they’re better off apart. (It’s kind of hard to tell much about Stacie, admittedly, since Biel’s performance is so blank that it threatens to be invisible to the naked eye.)
There’s also a completely contrived third-act dilemma in which George must choose between staying near Lewis in Virginia and taking a gig at ESPN in Connecticut — as though there weren’t a well-trod media corridor connecting New York and Washington, DC.
Offensively stupid when it isn’t tepid and vapid, “Playing for Keeps” combines the worst of ABC Family drama and Cinemax late-night naughty-ish-ness. It’s an extended penalty kick to the groin.