‘Playing for Keeps’: Film’s comedy doesn’t work at all

By Gary Clift

After seeing “Playing for Keeps,” viewers may leave the theater shaking their heads. This is the only new movie in town one weekend during the Christmas season? Was there something wrong with the lighting? Why did Uma and Zeta Jones look so odd in that? Was it supposed to be funny?

Having been nothing more than one of the viewers when “Playing for Keeps” opened in the local twelve-plex, I really can’t answer any of those questions, and the first one really baffles me. But I think I have an idea about the last one. Romantic comedies are supposed to be funny. Why wasn’t this one funny?

It may be that it isn’t funny because Italian director Gabriele Muccino doesn’t understand Anglo-Saxon comedy. English speakers pretty obviously do not laugh at the same things that amuse Italian film-goers. For example, do you recall when Roberto Benigni starred as Inspector Clouseau’s son in 1993’s “Son of the Pink Panther”?

That movie was directed by Blake Edwards, the originator of the series. And I read that it was a hit in Italy. English speaking audiences didn’t laugh, and didn’t buy tickets. Now Benigni got his revenge by starring in 1999’s “Life is Beautiful” and winning the Best Actor Oscar. Got a yen to see that movie again?

Well, the American market got its revenge on Benigni by ignoring his next movie, “Pinocchio,” said to be the most expensive Italian film ever made. Whatever it was that Benigni was doing that Italians found funny, we found mildly irritating.

“Playing for Keeps” isn’t irritating. But its comedy doesn’t work at all, and so it is sometimes tedious. In it Gerrard Butler plays a former star Scottish soccer player named George Dyer. Failing to find a new profession after his retirement from athletics, he moves to D.C., the home of his son and the kid’s mother (Jessica Biel), the great love of George’s life.

The kid is on a soccer team which George takes to coaching. This introduces him to the mothers of some of the players, including characters played by Uma Thurman and Catherine Zeta Jones, who don’t resemble themselves, and the great Judy Greer. These women flirt with him.

And Zeta Jones’s character, a former sportscaster, directs George in an audition tape and then sends that off to ESPN, a cable TV conglomerate which sometimes deigns to show games but prefers showing yammering.

As we are supposedly wondering whether George will get a job offer, Biel’s character is getting ready to marry her new beau. Will she leave George behind? Will his son’s team win the championship game?

We might sort of care about those issues. But it isn’t because we’ve found the characters in the story to be funny. Only Greer, who keeps breaking into tears of excitement when talking with Coach Hunk, gets even a chuckle. Dennis Quaid, a proven comedian, practically climbs over the scenery trying to make his jealous husband funny, but it doesn’t work.

Romantic? Maybe. Comedy? Not on this continent.

That, I think, is the problem with “Playing for Keeps.” Who knows what problem allowed furniture to throw shadows on the faces of speaking characters. Or why on this prime movie weekend “Playing for Keeps” is the only film entering general release.

We don’t want to discount the talents of Muccino, whose “Pursuit of Happyness” was a pretty good American drama a couple of years ago. Its just that “Playing for Keeps” gives no evidence that she understands what we are likely to laugh at.

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