Gerard Butler could be a bigger deal. But his swagger doesn’t amount to anything. He plays too many losers and slobs and men only other men would want to marry — men who don’t shave, and who wear sweat pants and care only about being a man. Butler barks yet never bites. He’s all pounded hand greetings and leather jackets and thumb rings. But he has no danger or darkness, only the faint air of a hangover. His appeal is meant as irony: Ladies, this beery, chauvinist sports nut loves you. This is modern movie stardom, and it’s depressing: the romantic lead who could also be selling us body spray.
Butler is always given an easy target to chase. Trying to win Jennifer Aniston or Katherine Heigl might be intimidating at your local bar. But in a movie like the “The Bounty Hunter,” with Aniston, or “The Ugly Truth,” with Heigl, the outcome has been preordained. They’re obligated to go home with him. He’s not like a Denzel Washington or a Russell Crowe or even a Ryan Gosling — there’s no mystery to keep him sexy, nothing for a woman to discover or unpack or be surprised by. Gerard Butler is what happens after you marry one of those guys — or James Bond. He’s the end of the honeymoon.
In a Butler romantic comedy, the heroine is usually an ex or a woman who just knows better, forced by fate — OK, OK, by bad screenwriting — into remarriage. Butler comes around. He learns to listen. He learns to hug. And the heroine learns to be less perfect, less professional. She learns to relax. Butler isn’t a bigger deal because a woman can get a used lover at home. What she can’t get is Denzel. Not that he could make a movie like “Playing for Keeps” good. He just would have elevated the allure. Butler simply acquits himself, and that’s not enough.
He plays a washed-up Scottish soccer star named George Dryer, who’s just moved to the Virginia suburbs to get acquainted with his adorable estranged son (Noah Lomax). George wants a sportscasting job but, in the meantime, winds up coaching his boy’s soccer team and causing a commotion with the mothers — chiefly three played by Judy Greer, Uma Thurman, and Catherine Zeta-Jones — and the louche and grabby loudmouth who’s married to Thurman’s character. He’s played by Dennis Quaid, who’s agreeably loose, tan, and cokey, and who might have made this movie a hit in 1988.
The women are desperately drawn to George, who’s desperately drawn to his ex (Jessica Biel), who’s engaged to an absurdly tolerant dreamboat (James Tupper). The three mothers spend all their time coming on to George, dropping by the guest house he’s renting, eager for sex. Zeta-Jones’s character even hires a baby sitter more or less in order to sic herself on him. The whole thing concludes precisely as you’d expect, only more bewilderingly. Biel tells Tupper of her feelings and proceeds to run onto the lawn to kick a soccer ball with her son and her ex, who’s turned down a dream job because pursuing it, in this movie, would have been the height of selfishness. It’s the least emotionally logical grave-dancing I’ve ever seen. The other guy’s still in the house!
Even so, this is a fine idea for a movie. The script is by Robbie Fox, and he could have had a suburban D.C. “Shampoo” on his hands. But there’s no wit or big idea or even lasting sexiness; George goes from scene to scene embarrassed by the attention. “Shampoo” had a similar premise: a Beverly Hills hairdresser has sex with his clients. Both men are named George and, in this new movie, “Dryer” is a little too salon-oriented to be a coincidence. “Shampoo” was released in 1975 and set during the Nixon-Humphrey presidential race of 1968. It folded its political era into its screwball playpen. The movie carried a real sense of melancholy and doubt that you can still feel. With “Playing for Keeps,” you wonder why Fox or the movie’s director, Gabriele Muccino (“The Pursuit of Happyness”), didn’t see their idea through.
“Shampoo” had Warren Beatty at the height of his powers as both a star and a screenwriter (he wrote the film with Robert Towne; Hal Ashby directed it). Beatty’s George juggled girlfriends and exes; he was pathologically horny and deceitful, and the women he bedded and lied to enabled the deception because George, when they had him, was attentive and talented. His juggling and promiscuity were almost worth putting up with.
Butler’s George atones for everything. The women come on to him and he merely succumbs. They have all the hormones and desire and prowess, and, in Greer’s case, all the comic timing. He’s just a tool. That’s an interesting adjustment — his passivity and self-embarrassment — but this isn’t a genre-less character study, it’s myopic romantic comedy, and watching a woman of Catherine Zeta-Jones’s easy carnality and fathomless beauty compete for the attention of Gerard Butler, who’s pining for Jessica Biel, is dismaying, like spotting Anna Wintour in line at a soup kitchen. It’s Hollywood dyslexia and a dubious achievement for Muccino, who’s also directed the best acting Will Smith’s ever done.
Zeta-Jones remains the perfect amalgam of Faye Dunaway and Kathleen Turner, all the breezy sexuality with fewer sharp angles. She should be a bigger deal than she’s been. Meanwhile, Butler never seems to run out of opportunities to stun us with his averageness. You hope he has a “Silver Linings Playbook” in him, and then you see this. With Zeta-Jones, the loss is entirely ours. She hasn’t had a great part since the Coen brothers’ undervalued film noir-comedy, “Intolerable Cruelty,” which presented her with a rare equal in an altogether different George — Clooney. That was nine years ago. We need her now, and not as Gerard Butler’s side dish. I assume Zeta-Jones is here with him merely for the exercise. She would have been better off with a treadmill.