Given the abysmal state of romantic comedies these days, the new Gerard Butler vehicle "Playing for Keeps" isn't particularly heinous – even if it is a Gerard Butler vehicle. Butler plays a washed-up '90s (European) football star, George, who has recently moved to some Virginian suburb to be closer to his kid, Lewis (Noah Lomax). Lewis lives with his mom – and George's estranged partner – Stacie (Jessica Biel), who has taken up with some staid, anonymous, clean-cut dude. Meanwhile, George is broke, with no job and no future. So when he's recruited to coach his son's soccer team, he figures, Why not?
Almost instantaneously, soccer moms start falling for him right and left, acting like blubbering fools in the presence of his scruffy mug and vaguely melancholy blue eyes. Because not only does George have a burly Scottish accent, he's a Sad Guy in Need of Rescue; it turns out he's still in love with Stacie, which is part of the reason he moved to her neck of the woods. And what woman doesn't love a challenge?
The local babes who line up to win George's favor include Uma Thurman as the well-heeled wife of a rich jerk (Dennis Quaid takes on this thankless role with more good humor than he probably should); Judy Greer as an insecure basket case; and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a flirty former sportscaster who just might be able to help George get a job, though she clearly has other designs on him as well.
Unfortunately, this roster of appealing actresses, particularly the always-crackling Greer, is underserved by the movie's radically dumb conceit. The whole affair is pretty retrograde, with these toothsome foxes spending all their screen time making moo-moo eyes at George, even as he feebly attempts to fend them off.
But if "Playing for Keeps" is mildly distasteful in that regard, at least it isn't bodaciously offensive: These women may behave foolishly, but they don't fall off their high heels or get embarrassingly drunk on fruity umbrella drinks. Director Gabriele Muccino (of "Pursuit of Happyness" fame) and screenwriter Robbie Fox manage to keep the proceedings reasonably agreeable and at least mildly entertaining.
Most amazingly of all, they work some sort of miracle juju to make Gerard Butler almost … likable. Well, not quite, but at least his detestability has been lowered to a nearly tolerable level. Butler still has that badly shaven, potato-puff look he's been sporting for years; somehow, this kind of uber-masculine undergrooming is supposed to make women swoon, though it merely looks as if he doesn't know how to find the nearest CVS.
Worse, though, Butler has tended to play nearly every character (particularly in movies like "The Bounty Hunter" and "The Ugly Truth") with a cocksure gleam in his eye, the kind of affected bad-boy twinkle that shouts, "You know you want it!" even if you're quite sure you don't. But in "Playing for Keeps," Butler plays a guy who isn't so certain about his prospects, and he almost makes you believe in that reality. George fumbles in the presence of Stacie, not quite knowing how to behave or what to say, and Butler lets down his guard enough to make it all seem half-real. "Playing for Keeps," and Butler, could have been so much worse. Then again, when a romantic comedy inspires nothing more than a sigh of resignation, it's clear the bar has been set way too low.