I truly have no idea what the studio executives behind “Playing for Keeps” were thinking.
They started with a basic, cliched romantic comedy script, tired enough that George Clooney probably passed on it some time in the 1990s. A washed-up soccer star, played by Gerard Butler, coaches his son’s team while trying to get back with his ex-wife. The other team mothers routinely throw themselves at him in scenes full of wacky hijinks. There’s even a scene where a woman crawls mostly naked out a window while a man distracts someone at the front door.
They then handed the script to director Gabriele Muccino, who is best known for the Will Smith Oscar-bait biopic “The Pursuit of Happyness.” You know, the one where a single father is so busy making a life for himself and his son that romance has absolutely nothing to do with the movie. Perfect fit, right?
Naturally, Muccino rewrites the script into a fairly serious movie about a man changing his life and trying to have a relationship with his son. This is the script Gerard Butler saw, and he manages to inject a surprising amount of tenderness and genuine despair into what might have been a one-note character. I truly believed that his character knew he’d hit bottom and was clinging to the few things that mattered most.
Jessica Biel, playing Butler’s ex, also saw this version of the script. Her character was fighting hard not to start dreaming again, and her frustration, tiredness and love were all beautifully portrayed.
While this version of the movie was being put together, the studio executives wandered back in. As far as I can tell, they were absolutely horrified by the movie Muccino was making.
“How dare you take out our wacky hijinks!” I imagine them saying. “No one will know this is supposed to be a comedy if we don’t make terrible jokes every five seconds!”
The studio executives then called in what must have been a ton of favors and dragged Uma Thurman, Dennis Quaid, and Catherine Zeta-Jones onto the set. They were given copies of the original rom-com script, not Muccino’s rewrite, and told to add the hijinks.
Zeta-Jones resisted the most, making her character the most well rounded of the three, and even Thurman added a tragic undertone to the silliness the script insisted on for her character. Quaid was an unrepentant ham from beginning to end, but he has so few chances to play a sleazeball he probably wasn’t able to resist.
The studio executives then shoehorned those scenes back into Muccino’s version, leaving us with a movie so painfully awkward it has no idea what to do with itself. Watching it is as unsettling as seeing Frankenstein’s monster being born Р what you’re seeing is a violation of nature. Creatures like that are doomed to short, unhappy lives.
I mourn the loss of the movie Muccino, Butler and Biel tried to make. The studio executives probably mourn their terrible rom-com. This is what comes of making bad decisions, kids.