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!
The movie does flirt with the idea of having George suffer some sort of consequences for his years of neglect and priapism. But that's just the standard rom-com tease. He's in the title role, he's got that wounded smile—how can he lose? In one of his final lines of the film, George says he's learned the importance of being there—but Matt was there, too, and more often—and, really, could probably be expected to be there more responsibly and consistently in the future as well. George's charm isn't that he's there. It's his athleticism and his good looks and arguably most of all his faithlessness.
If fidelity and responsibility were what mattered, Matt would get the happy ending. But he hardly ever does. Every so often you'll get some sweet guy hero like Lloyd in Say Anything. But more often you're presented with supposedly charming fixer-upers, from Han Solo to Richard Gere in Pretty Woman to Eddie Murphy in Boomerang to, again, that ongoing archetype of rakishness James Bond. It's as if the folks who make movies think that even Matt wants to be George—so much so that the faithful goober will cheer for the star even as said star is pissing on him from a great height.
So, on behalf of all the Matts out there, let me take a moment to piss back. It is true, as I said, that my coaching did not transform my son's team. But that's okay, because I don't need world-class athletic prowess to rescue my relationship with my own child, thank you very much. I changed his diapers (more often than his mom, as she'll be the first to admit). I walked up and down with him when he had colic. I wheeled him around the neighborhood from park to park, stuffing Cheerios in his mouth when he got cranky. I make him breakfast (not very well, but still). I hold his inhaler when he has an asthma attack. I schedule playdates. I even use the word "playdate" in public, God help me. And, perhaps most importantly, I didn't need his mom to explain to me how to be a parent like I'm an idiot. I'm a better father, and for that matter a better husband, than George ever was, or than he is ever likely to be, given what we see of him in this film.
That's not a particularly splendid accomplishment or anything. George is an insultingly low standard. Which is all the more reason that husbands, fathers, women, and everyone else should resent being told—in this film and in general—that we should root for this loser. Reformation is great, but I get really tired of hearing that responsibility and faithfulness only really count if you screwed up and screwed around first. Infidelity is not a necessary prelude to masculine maturity, and sports, despite hundreds of films and thousands of beer commercials, just has nothing to do with being a man.
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