PLAYING FOR KEEPS is the sort of mild, inoffensive dramedy audiences can't seem to get enough of. Filled with recognizable faces, plotted by focus groups and shot without any sense of style, it will likely make piles of money on its long, unexceptional journey to the hall of half-remembered Hollywood pabulum. Everything I look for in a movie is absent here, but I cannot hate it, for what is there really to hate?
Gerard Butler's heartthrob status seems in precipitous decline these days. Time and again he's put out to pasture, playing a past-his-prime ladykiller of one sort or another. In this case, he plays George, an ex-professional soccer player whose career-ending ankle injury leaves him merely an inept ex-husband and sometimes father.
Having lost the Ferrari and the vacation house in the Italian Lake District, he moves to Virginia to be closer to his ex-wife (Jessica Biel) and their young son, Lewis (Noah Lomax). She cohabitates with a new guy, and faint future wedding bells can be heard. George gets roped into coaching Lewis' soccer team, all the while trying to jump-start a career in sports broadcasting. And, yes, he realizes what a huge mistake it was to let his wife go in the first place.
Midway through, Playing starts to get a little weird and a little dark. But this tantalizing tease doesn't last. Catherine Zeta-Jones pops up as a voracious man-eater with ESPN connections to trade. Dennis Quaid and Uma Thurman appear as a bizarre, jealous and possibly alcoholic/drug addicted married couple vying for George's attention. And the great Judy Greer does a turn as a recent divorcee with low self-esteem.
The real fun, at least from the "potential for creepiness/Lynchian suburban drama" perspective, is in Quaid and Thurman's performances. I'm not sure what the intention was, but they both act constantly drunk or stoned on pills. No mention is made of this in the narrative. At one point, George has to post $10,000 bail for Quaid's character because some guy at a bar was looking at Thurman's character. They play this off as a routine occurrence, as if his fits of jealous rage routinely end in aggravated assault charges. Just another Saturday night!
I may have gotten a little bored watching this. I may have just been trying to entertain myself by interpolating some nasty noir business within its depressingly unremarkable plot and execution. Really, that's on me. Playing for Keeps is fine, if completely bland and innocuous. People will love it for the low commitment it requires, and for the intermittently heartwarming family elements. I didn't. PG13. 106m.
ANNA KARENINA. Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Hanna), working from Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's big-old canonical novel, delivers a well-acted, imaginatively staged and gorgeously designed movie, and yet I could barely keep my eyes open. That may sound dismissive; I don't exactly intend it that way. I wanted to enjoy Anna Karenina, and in brief flashes I did, but the narrative is so plodding and familiar that not even Wright's impressive vision can keep it interesting.
The central theme here is marital infidelity among the Russian upper class circa 1875. In the title role, Keira Knightley gives an impressive, intermittently heartbreaking performance as a prominent society figure who sacrifices her standing for a love affair with dapper young Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
Wright approaches this and other dalliances from a number of perspectives, incorporating class conflict, courtship rituals and politics along the way. The scope of the story almost boggles the mind. Perhaps in an effort to compartmentalize it, or make it more manageable, Wright stages the majority of the action within a dilapidated old theater. The sets move and transform, with scenes taking place everywhere from the rafters to the basement. Occasionally a door onstage opens and the camera pushes out into the vastness of the Russian countryside.
In terms of imagination and execution, this aspect of the movie succeeds overwhelmingly. The production design, costuming, camera-work -- the sheer mechanics of making it all happen so seamlessly -- are uniformly amazing. Likewise the performances of the outstanding cast, which add to the lush, decadent and enveloping atmosphere.
But somehow, it doesn't succeed as a whole. The emotions feel too scattered, too distant, to diffuse to resonate. And because this is such a familiar story, whether we know we're familiar with it or not, it takes more than clever staging to keep it interesting. It's a shame because Wright's treatment of the story is pretty remarkable. But Stoppard's adaptation isn't, and it prevents the whole thing from getting off the ground. R. 129m.
--John J. Bennett
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. Well, some of us expected it. Anyway, back to Middle Earth! Nine years after The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson returns to the land of hobbits, elves, dwarfs and wizards. And like LOTR, the story of Bilbo Baggins will be split into three films, with sequels set for 2014 and 2015. Long journey. PG13. 169m.
MONSTERS, INC. 3D. See, there's a prequel coming out next summer called Monsters University, so obviously you should go see the 2001 original in 3D (opening Wednesday). Take the kids while you're at it. G. 92m.
THE GUILT TRIP. Also opening Wednesday is this odd couple road comedy starring Seth Rogen as The Seth Rogen Character and Barbra Streisand as his embarrassing Jewish mother. In a moment of pity, he invites her on his cross-country road trip, which leads to uncomfortable situations just brimming with humor. PG13. 95m.
What's more exciting about The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) -- watching a T-Rex rampage through San Diego or trying to spot local filming locations, including Patrick's Point State Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park? Depends on your nerd calibration, I suppose. At any rate, you can go see it Sunday evening at 6 at the Arcata Theatre Lounge. Next Wednesday's Sci-Fi Pint and Pizza Night gets all Christmassy with the cult fave Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). What can't this Santa guy do? Doors at 6, movie at 7:30.
ARGO. Ben Affleck helms and stars in this harrowing and surprisingly funny account of the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis. One of the year's best films. R. 120m.
FLIGHT. Director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Cast Away) goes into darker territory with this tale of a heroic but alcoholic commercial airline pilot (Denzel Washington). R. 138m.
KILLING THEM SOFTLY. Brad Pitt stars as a mafia hit man operating amid stifling bureaucracy and the 2008 economic collapse in this stylish, hyper-violent thriller. R. 97m.
LIFE OF PI. Ang Lee's adaptation of the bestselling book by Yann Martel is a visual feast, a technological marvel and a glib homily about spirituality. PG. 127m.
LINCOLN. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a bravura performance in Steven Spielberg's handsome and rousing biopic, which portrays the deft political wrangling of our 16th president. PG13. 149m.
RED DAWN. Yes, they remade that Patrick Swayze movie from the ‘80s. This time it's the North Koreans invading small-town America. PG13. 114m.
RISE OF THE GUARDIANS. Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Jack Frost team up to make kids believe in them again. PG. 97m.
SKYFALL. James Bond battles his Freudian demons and a swishy-sinister Javier Bardem in one of the most satisfying 007 films to date. PG13. 143m.
TWILIGHT: BREAKING DAWN PART 2. The fifth and final installment of the angsty vampire soap opera has arrived. In case you hadn't noticed. PG13. 115m.
WRECK-IT RALPH. A video game bad guy with a good heart sets out on an existential quest across the pixilated landscapes of Pac-Man, Street Fighter and the like. PG. 108m.
-- Ryan Burns