George Dryer used to be somebody.
Years ago, George was a big shot on the soccer pitch, playing the game for his queen, his country … and a whole lot of money. He was a Scottish superstar and had all the perks to show for it. But retirement hasn't been kind: George's creditors don't care whether he scored a winning goal against England or how many Italian villas he used to frequent. They want their money. Now George is dodging his landlord and struggling to find work—in broadcasting, if someone'll have him. He knows he has to be a responsible adult. But after so many years playing games for a living, it's hard to grow up.
First step on the road to maturity: Be a dad—a real dad—to his 9-year-old boy, Lewis. George and ex-wife Stacie split when Lewis was just 4, and (as Stacie's quick to remind him) it's not like he was much in the picture before that. But as his sports successes fade into the realm of historical relics, George begins to realize that his family, not his fame, was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Old habits die hard, of course. George moves to the Virginia town where Stacie and Lewis live to spend more time with his boy. But it's not enough. He still skips visits, and when he does show up, their time together is tense. Stacie preaches patience: "You didn't lose him overnight," she reminds him.
Then one afternoon, after he takes Lewis to soccer practice, George does something wild: He steps back onto the field—not to play, but to give the kids a few pointers. And in the time it takes for Lionel Messi to unleash a bicycle kick, parents are clamoring for George to take over the team.
The kids marvel at his skill. The mothers swoon over his Scottish brogue. A soccer dad hands George an envelope full of money: For uniforms, he says—oh, and if my son could play goalie, that'd be great, too.
Yeah, things are looking up for old George Dryer. He's starting to feel like somebody again. But is it possible that in the thrall of all the attention, he might lose sight—again—of what kind of somebody he should be?
George made a lot of missteps in his life. But we never get a sense that he is, or even was, a big jerk. He's pretty likable, in fact—encouraging to both kids and their parents alike. Sometimes he's a little too encouraging (check "Sexual Content" for more on that), but for the most part, he's trying to get along. He encourages Barb, a fragile single mom, to have a bit more self-confidence. He bails Carl, a married louse, out of prison. And when Carl's wife tries to seduce George, the coach does manage to turn her down.
But George is at his best later in the movie when he homes his focus in on Lewis. As I've said, George finally begins to realize that his family, not his fame, was the best thing to ever happen to him. After a few times tripping over the ball, he throws his all into healing his relationship with the boy—practicing soccer with him out in the rain (for hours, it seems), taking him on walks and joining him for an excursion to the arcade.
[Spoiler Warning] He also pursues a renewed relationship with Stacie—the only woman he's ever loved. We at Plugged In love it when folks try to patch up their marriages, of course. So while in context George's pursuit of Stacie feels a little funky (she's on the verge of getting married to a nice, stable guy who doesn't run around with other women—making him an arguably more suitable partner than George), we're grateful that George is given a bit of grace he probably doesn't deserve and that a broken family gets put back together.
Lewis makes a comment about looking up his horoscope.
A former playing buddy says that back in the day George got "more a‑‑ than a toilet seat." And it doesn't look like much has changed when George becomes a coach for kids. Barb invites herself into his pad and forces him to critique her online dating profile (saying the photo therein was designed to not make her look "skanky"). When he expresses his approval, she flings her arms around him, presses him against a window and kisses him passionately. We don't see the two sleep together, but we do see George in bed, naked from the waist up (at least), reading a note from Barb that says, "Thanks for breaking my slump."
Another soccer mom, Denise, offers to help George put together an audition tape for ESPN. When the taping's done, Denise flirts with him in a darkened studio. And when George says he needs to get back to his son, she wraps a leg around George's waist and lays a big ol' smooch on him. Again the camera cuts before we see anything more, but the two of them arrive back at Denise's home after apparently several hours. Later, Lewis catches Denise and George kissing, a sight that hurts Lewis deeply.
Soccer couple Carl and Patti invite George to a party, where Carl brags about his mistress to George (one of many, it's suggested). Hypocritically, while Patti knows about Carl's affairs, Carl won't tolerate infidelity in his wife. No matter: Patti sneaks off to George's home anyway and strips down in front of him to her black bra and panties. (George rejects her, but one of Carl's spies apparently followed her, and a furious Carl later thrusts the resulting photos in George's face.
George and a friend reminisce about women George got together with during his prime. (They argue over whether they were twins or triplets.) Denise fantasizes about George while watching him coach. Other soccer moms make suggestive comments about him. He tells a story about when Queen Elizabeth saw him naked. He records an audition tape in a shirt, tie, coat and boxers.
Two men get in a pushing match that degenerates into a wrestling skirmish. Kids, mistaking the scrum for a dog pile, pile on. Lewis pushes an opposing player and gets booted from a game. Lewis and George watch a stupid but insanely bloody movie together (we see injuries and some of that blood)—right before Lewis is supposed to go to sleep. "Don't dream of scary monsters," George futilely tells his boy.
Crude or Profane Language
The s-word is uttered at least 15 times, along with "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "d‑‑n," "h‑‑‑" and "bloody." "W-nker" is said several times, once by a child.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Characters drink beer, wine, champagne and other forms of liquor. Patti and Carl both seem to be a bit tipsy at their party, and Carl gets arrested for driving under the influence. Stacie guzzles a full mug of beer.
A kid mentions that his grandfather died from smoking.
Other Negative Elements
George lies to evade his landlord and takes what seems to be a bribe from Carl. He asks Stacie to lie to Matt. He also lets his son drive (steer) a borrowed Ferrari and, when it spins out, he instructs Lewis to not tell his mother. Carl bets George money on some feats of soccer.
Lewis shouts at his father, telling George he hates him, and shrugs off both his parents. George tells Patti she shouldn't stay in an unhappy marriage.
"How did you get to be so grown up?" George asks Stacie.
"Somebody had to," she says. And you get the sense that, even though she was just 23 when they married, she was always the voice of maturity in their relationship. George? He was just a big, irresponsible kid.
But everybody—even international soccer stars—have to grow up sometime. And to see that growth is perhaps the most rewarding part of this film. We see George not just take, but embrace and treasure responsibility. We see him set aside his own selfish silliness for the good of his son. And we see him commit, presumably, to treating the love of his life the way she should've been treated all along.
But while George may grow up in Playing for Keeps, the movie itself stays mired in juvenile attitudes. In it, sex is not treated as part of or even prelude to a deep commitment, much less marriage. It's simply something to be done as a pick-me-up in a spare hour or two. Sure, it's not a habit the film encourages, exactly, but it smirks at George's exploits all the same. That's a pretty childish take on an inherently adult topic. One that only Lewis, ironically, seems to truly understand:
When the lad sees his father kiss someone who's not his mom, he knows in his core that it's not a funny dalliance or a passing fancy, as most of the soccer moms might think. It shouldn't be the same ol' same ol', as Stacie suggests. It's not even serial philandering that must be brought to heel, as George comes to realize.
It's a betrayal.
Playing for Keeps ends nicely. But getting there—well, it's not all fun and games.