Playing for Keeps is a Romantic Comedy that is not all that funny, but is terribly romantic. Gabriele Muccino directs and Robbie Fox scripts a story where true love marries, divorces and then grows up in order to marry again–for keeps this time.
That tiresome evasion that boys will be boys is one Playing for Keeps actively rejects, especially when “boys” become husbands and fathers. The film argues that boys who are biologically still children need their fathers and wives are in need of their husbands. Acknowledging that relationships have gone astray, both parents having failed to mature together, is there still a chance for reconstruction?
In Playing for Keeps, a father moves to the town where his son and ex-wife live to have a relationship with his son (and ex). George (Gerard Butler) is at a crossroads. His career as a soccer player since passed, he is trying to figure out what he wants to be and do now. He is the man still in the process of growing up, of trying to decide who and what defines his masculinity, of deciding what he wants. Through the course of the film, George must learn to say no to inappropriate sexual liaisons, land a steady paying job of some repute, and choose age appropriate (read: meaningful) bonding activities with his son. And if he can grow up, how might he be rewarded?
Suburbia is rife with marital problems. Carl (Dennis Quaid), the epitome of entitlement, is insanely possessive of his wife Patti (Uma Thurman), but sleeps around. Barb (Judy Greer) is divorced single-mother, lonely, unsatisfied, and exhibits everything just short of pathetic after an “eligible” male (George) arrives on the scene. Professional woman turned homemaker Denise (Catherine Zeta-Jones) we learn even before we meet her that her husband sleeps in another room and she cries at night. Carl and George’s landlord both want to align themselves with the celebrity player they perceive George to be, while the three women, too, are attracted to his oozing sexuality and charm. And at first he tries to accommodate them all. It is when he draws boundaries and refocuses on what he should (coaching his son’s team to victory) that the others find themselves in happier situations as well.
A frumpy ex and suburban mom, Stacie (Jessica Biel) is peripheral for most of the beginning. She is the now mature and much wiser mother of a grade-schooler who is supportive of George’s efforts to reconnect with his son, but as we learn well into the story, she is not interested in any effort of his to reconnect with her. I think we are to assume her disinterest since she is engaged to another man and actively planning their wedding from the first, so it is odd when George and Stacie have a conversation over late-lunch where she warns him to leave if his real intention is to pursue her and not the son. Then, I suppose the film was not yet ready to address their relationship–it was too busy establishing the anxiety we expect will detonate the climax of the film. And we need time for George to become more appealing to Stacie, i.e. do the things I listed earlier.
Once George gains appeal, Stacie is thrown into real conflict. That self-assured figure with a stable life and future begins to essentially question: what is stability without love? A guess, because she is harder to read than first thought. And yet, exasperation enters because of course who could resist George (Butler), right?! But what about the fiance? While I am glad Stacie’s fiance Matt (James Tupper) is never outright maligned, he is also non-existent. He’s a polite shadow: on the sidelines cheering, answering phones, fetching Stacie, and looking a bit troubled but remains quiet. When it is time, he steps forward to confront Stacie about what is going on between her and George. He must have noticed her lie when she made it seem all was well after the fitting for the wedding dress. We learn that even though they’ve been together 3 years, she never stopped loving George. I vomited a bit in my mouth.
George wins because he finally gets his act together. And what does he win? Not the woman at the beginning of the film, but the one he married–care free and only caring that all they have is love–because did George call and resign from that new job? [it seems unclear on that point, but the film would suggest he would sacrifice anything for his family.] Stacie tells George she called off the wedding. Her reservations about his character–as a husband and father– have been swept aside for happier memories and an uncertain future; which matters little because George is the central figure who has undergone the work of exchanging boyhood for manhood, to say nothing of the desire of the film is to see the “original” family reinstated.
Now to say something about the film’s desire. I get the incentive-driven moral, the world less disjointed and lighter of heart and victorious. When we read that George should become a man for his own sake, we still have to define what manliness and own sake mean. In Playing for Keeps it is becoming who he was meant to be, who he had committed himself to be once upon a time: father of his son and husband to his wife. He respects sexual boundaries, the age of his child, his role as provider, and the need for him to be present, physically and emotionally available. This is all well and good except: While the film makes a forgettable character in Stacie’s fiance, he is not one I would forget. See, I was watching this with Sean, a father to my daughter, though not biologically. I know there to be differences between the divorced and never married (which I wish the law honored, but that is another thing). I know men who are men as the film would define them and then some: excellent parents and husbands to children and sexual partners who were not theirs first. Any hint of destroying or interrupting those households for someone who finally got their shit together is some sort of conservative romanticism that I cannot abide.
The casting choices were good, well-acted. The progression of Butler’s character was nice and dramatic, even if the narrative structure was weighted in unusual ways; perhaps because of it. The social issues, relevant. The boy was cute. There were a few very sexy cars. And suburbia very pretty and cringe-worthy. I wish it were funnier, and that it had come to a different, less disturbingly romanticized conclusion.
A better romantic comedy of similar social concern is Run Fatboy Run (2007) directed by David Schwimmer, starring Simon Pegg, Thandie Newton, and Hank Azaria. True, Azaria’s character Whit is demonized to allow room for Pegg’s Dennis, but Newton’s character Libby is more honorable in her commitments until it is shown that Whit is not good to her son. Another important difference between films is that Libby is a small business owner, lives alone with her son, and is thus portrayed less dependent upon either male. Her’s looks like a real relationship choice, and Dennis is also a meaningful figure in his son’s life–he’s just needing to still “grow-up.” Run Fatboy Run is funny, and Dennis more endearing and just as manly (even if a sex-deprived female isn’t trying to have sex with him every 15 minutes).
Playing for Keeps (2012), director: Gabriele Muccino; writer: Robbie Fox; cinematography: Peter Menzies Jr.; Editing by Padraic McKinley; FilmDistrict. Starring: Gerard Butler (George), Jessica Biel (Stacie), Dennis Quaid (Carl), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Denise), Uma Thurman (Patti), Judy Greer (Barb).
Running time 105 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some sexual situations, language and a brief intense image.