Playing for Keeps recycles tired, flawed lessons about masculinity.
I played soccer in high school; I was a very mediocre second-stringer on a mediocre team out in northeastern Pennsylvania, where the level of play in the mid-'90s was, as you might imagine, not all that high to begin with. Still, I know how you're supposed to kick a ball and what offsides is, so when I was asked to coach my son's soccer team, I felt like I probably should. Alas, the team was dreadful. My coaching skills were certainly not up to overcoming the talent deficit, and my efforts to suggest possible administrative alternatives (like switching players around, as the league was obviously unbalanced) were met with stonewalling by the league and open hostility from other parents. Overall, it was one of the more depressing episodes of my time as a parent; all the more so because of its pettiness. The sense of pitiful, trivial, all-pervading inadequacy was disconcertingly similar to the feeling I had when I was dating—a sensation which, after meeting my wife, I had fervently hoped never to revisit.
In Playing For Keeps, out today, George Dryer, like me, is asked to coach his son's soccer team—but the similarity pretty much ends there. Dryer, played by the raffishly scruffy Gerard Butler, is an internationally renowned soccer star, and his brilliant advice (like "kick with the laces, not with the toe") quickly turns the hapless Cyclones into a band of gritty, goal-scoring winners. For this manly competence, George receives the usual cinematic reward. Dads press cash and Ferraris into his hands; moms who look improbably like A-list Hollywood stars take turns throwing themselves at his nether regions.
But it's not all effortless victory and copulating for our hero. George has problems, too. At the start of the film, he's got no job, few prospects, and can't even pay the rent on his dinky little guest house. His past alpha-male antics (in his time "that man got more ass than a toilet" as one friend puts it) have seriously damaged his relationship with his ex-wife, Stacie (Jessica Biel), and his son, Lewis (Noah Lomax). He's moved to Virginia to try to reconnect with them, only to discover that Stacie is about to remarry.
The film, then, is about how coaching soccer helps George to become a good man and a good father. Everybody learns something, hearts are warmed, those who are so inclined are given the opportunity to gaze upon Gerard Butler's abs, and those with the alternate proclivity are given the opportunity to see Uma Thurman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Judy Greer project availability. What red-blooded man could object to that?
That is sort of the issue. Feminism has given women a way to deconstruct idealized images on screen, to understand the media's manipulation of bodies, desire, and jealousy as both political and aggressive. Men, though, haven't developed the same analytical resources. You hear about how Bella Swan in Twilight is a bad role model for girls, or how Julia Roberts in Pretty Women is a bad image for women. But men on screen are rarely seen as bad role models, or good role models. They're just more or less attractive fantasies. If you as a man find James Bond oppressive—well, that just shows what kind of man you are. Or, rather, aren't.
You can tell what kind of man I am, then, by the fact that I identified in the film not with that scamp George, but with Stacie's clean-shaven, nice-guy goober second-husband-to-be, Matt (James Tupper). Rooting for Matt isn't easy; the film gives him no abs to speak of, no soccer skills, and the personality of a stump. Stacie tells George at one point that Matt makes her laugh, but we never see him do so—nor do we ever see Matt interacting in any but the most perfunctory way with Lewis. Matt's not world-famous. He keeps his dick in his pants. He involves himself in the day-to-day tasks of raising a child. Ergo, he's boring and no one could possibly care about him. Let's go watch George do something sexily irresponsible again!