Perhaps different people got different memos while making "Playing for Keeps," a romantic comedy starring Gerard Butler as George Dryer, a '90s-era soccer star who begins coaching his son's team and finds that soccer moms are his new groupies. Half the actors realize they're in a bit of Hollywood fluff, but others deliver emotional performances worthy of a serious drama. As for Butler, well, it's hard to say exactly what he's doing.
The result is a schizophrenic movie that veers from surprisingly compelling to unsurprisingly formulaic. The latter is mostly due to George, known as "King" George until an ankle injury sent him back to Virginia, where his ex-wife, Stacie (Jessica Biel), is raising their 9-year-old, Lewis (first-timer Noah Lomax). While she prepares to wed nice-guy Matt (James Tupper), George tries to win her back.
But these darned sex-starved mothers keep getting in the way! One is Barb, a fragile weeper played by a very funny Judy Greer ("The Descendants"); another is Denise (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a former sportscaster who tempts George with a possible job at ESPN; and there's wealthy Patti (Uma Thurman, playing to the house), who's married to a manic businessman (Dennis Quaid).
So far, so typical, but Biel unexpectedly digs deep into Stacie. "If you love me, let me go," she sobs -- a not-so-original line, but delivered with such conviction that Butler appears to physically shrink from her. Lomax is also quite moving as their vulnerable, wounded son. Butler cakewalks charmingly, but he seems outdone on both sides.
Eventually, director Gabriele Muccino ("The Pursuit of Happyness"), writer Robbie Fox and everyone else get on the same page. "Playing for Keeps" ends with the requisite smiles and tears.
PLOT A washed-up soccer star returns home to coach his boy's team. RATING PG-13 (mild language and sexual content)
BOTTOM LINE Glimmers of real drama, plus a strong performance by Biel, lift this romantic comedy a smidgen above the usual stuff, but don't worry -- the usual stuff is in here, too.