By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Gerard Butler, so often off-putting or subpar as a leading man, raises his game a tad as an actor in Playing for Keeps, only to run into trouble and see that quality bar lowered yet again because of script problems that his producer should have attended to.

His producer’s name? Why, Gerard Butler.

(2 stars out of 4)

(2 stars out of 4)

Butler, who has played allegedly charming characters pretty much charmlessly in an array of movies, including The Ugly Truth, The Bounty Hunter, P.S. I Love You, and even The Phantom of the Opera, successfully dials down his suffocating charisma to an uncharacteristically palatable level in this romantic comedy.

But, apparently, no one – and certainly not Butler or any of the other thirteen producers — seems to have noticed how conveniently and ridiculously inflated his appeal to the other gender is throughout this romantic comedy with a kids’ soccer backdrop.

In Playing for Keeps, the rugged Scottish star plays George Dryer, a former professional soccer player — now living in the suburbs of Virginia and hoping to carve out a career as a sportscaster – who is trying to win back his ex-wife, played by Jessica Biel, and their young son, played by Noah Lomax.

Because his ex, about to remarry, encourages him to spend more time with his son, he volunteers to coach his son’s soccer team.

And what do all those soccer moms do? They immediately throw themselves at him, descending like crazed members of a predators’ club. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Judy Greer, and Uma Thurman, the latter married to soccer dad Dennis Quaid, lead the parade as virtually every woman who appears on-screen finds Dryer immediately and utterly irresistible. Including the otherwise-engaged Biel.

First of all, no one is this irresistible. Secondly, the sexual hijinks that ensue seem out of place in a movie with this much footage of children playing soccer.

Thirdly, wouldn’t it have been helpful to offer either an explanation or at least a little visual evidence of how or why the team George takes over transforms instantaneously from doormat to dynasty. Guess he’s just magical.

Robbie Fox’s embarrassing script for Playing for Keeps (originally titled Playing the Field) doesn’t include anyone who’s even remotely convincing or three-dimensional, so it’s no surprise to see pros like Thurman, Greer, Zeta-Jones, and Quaid look so utterly uncomfortable and dangle so precariously over the top. Only Biel maintains her dignity against all odds.

Director Gabriele Muccino (The Pursuit of Happyness, Seven Pounds) goes for an unwieldy combination of broadly farcical sexual comedy and family-friendly syrupy sentimentality. And there are moments in each realm that suggest what might have been. But because the film never even approaches believability, those moments still land far wide of the goal.

So we’ll score 2 stars out of 4 for Playing for Keeps, a third-rate romcom that’s anything but a keeper.

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