‘Playing for Keeps’ wavers between comedy, melodrama

The ruggedly appealing Scots-born actor Gerard Butler has spent some time laboring in the salt mines of romantic comedy, as “The Bounty Hunter” and “P.S. I Love You” can attest. The new one, “Playing for Keeps,” appears to be more of the same.

Ah, but this movie wants to get serious, wants to tug a few heartstrings. And boy, does it tug.

The lead role ought to be a winner for Butler: he plays George Dryer, a reasonably well-known soccer player in his day, now retired and broke and re-located to Virginia. He’s there because his ex-wife (Jessica Biel) lives there, and George wants to be close to their son (Noah Lomax).

With his artfully tousled hair, his beaten-up sports car, and — of course — the accent, George is a sensation amongst the single moms whose kids play soccer with his son. He seems vaguely interested in rekindling things with the ex, but these other women keep flinging themselves at him, and really, what’s a guy to do?

“Playing for Keeps” feels like three different movies vying for attention. The one in which rascally George juggles the ladies is the funniest of the bunch, but it sits awkwardly next to the sensitive-dad stuff.

The gallery of prospective mates is populated by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Uma Thurman and Judy Greer (lately seen in “The Descendants”). Of those three, Greer has the best moments, as an overly aggressive divorcee who doesn’t mind camping out in front of George’s bachelor pad at midnight.

Dennis Quaid has a few manic scenes as a high-roller who really likes the idea of having a celebrity sports star as a new buddy. Quaid reminds you of how good he can be when he gets his juices going.

Director Gabriele Muccini, who generally works in the sentiment-heavy vein of “The Pursuit of Happyness,” is in no hurry to resolve these issues, as though unaware that he needs to keep this kind of thing zipping along. The audience is way, way ahead of the plot.

Butler’s ingratiating, as usual, although the film would’ve benefited from his digging down a bit deeper beyond the casual charisma.

Jessica Biel, who’s currently playing Vera Miles in the dumb “Hitchcock” biopic, is oddly grounded and affecting; someday this actress is going to get into a really good movie and surprise a lot of people.

But not this time. Pleasant but far too slow, “Playing for Keeps” isn’t quite one thing or the other, despite the charming accent.

“Playing for Keeps” (2 stars)

Former soccer player Gerard Butler wants to get close to his ex-wife and their son, but the single moms just keep flinging themselves at him. The movie’s not sure whether it should be a comedy or a heartstring-tugger, and doesn’t succeed at either, although Jessica Biel is rather affecting as the ex.

Rated: PG-13, for language, subject matter

Showing: Alderwood, Cinebarre, Everett, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Meridian, Oak Tree, Sundance, Woodinville, Cascade.

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