"The Game Plan" is expressly what you would expect from a live-action Disney film starring Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson. Sometimes living up to expectations is enough, as it was with the recent "Shoot 'Em Up
," an over-the-top, violent action film that held no pretense of being anything more than a cartoonishly fun diversion. Other times, delivering on a promise is not such a good idea. Case in point: "The Game Plan," a pat, predictable, cloying family movie that is rarely funny as a comedy and too syrupy to work as drama. Director Andy Fickman (2006's "She's the Man
") and novice screenwriters Nichole Millard and Kathryn Price have merrily created a bland and safely conventional mainstream release that the easily amused will buy into and the more discerning will roll their eyes with the knowledge that they've seen it all before. By working from such a stringent guideline, there simply isn't enough room to introduce some much-needed innovation into the mix.
Joe 'The King' Kingman (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson) is the star quarterback of fictional NFL team the Boston Rebels and a bachelor with a wide spread of girls for the choosing. Obsessed with his sport of choice and adept with a "me, me, me" personality, Joe's self-absorbed single life suddenly screeches to a halt with the appearance of 8-year-old Peyton (Madison Pettis) at his doorstep. Claiming to be the daughter he never knew about, conceived right before he and his ex-wife got a divorce, Peyton has the necessary papers to prove her identity and just one demand: for Joe to take care of her for a month while her mother is away doing philanthropic work in Africa. Joe doesn't believe he has any room in his life for taking care of a kid, but he has no choice. As the press has a field day with the controversial, newly-uncovered story and hard-nosed agent Stella Peck (Krya Sedgwick) attempts to work damage control, Peyton helps Joe become a better person. In return, Joe's priorities are drastically altered as he falls in love with being a dad.
With the exception of one particular revelation near the end, "The Game Plan" does not deviate from its routine storytelling. This is just a single hindrance of many that makes the film a slack and dreary experience. After all, how involved can a viewer get in a movie where every step of a script appears to have been created and processed by committee? Slapstick hijinks are prevalent, from an open-topped blender blow-up, to a bubble bath gone awry, to a five-minute bit in which Joe's tongue is paralyzed after eating a cinnamon cookie (he's allergic). This latter scene goes on endlessly, the gag driven into the ground when it wasn't even amusing to begin with. There is a similar scene later on in which an allergic reaction to nuts is treated as near-tragedy. That both instances could have so easily been avoidedthe cinnamon cookie looks and no doubt tastes like a cinnamon cookie; the dessert is blatantly laced in nutsonly proves that the characters are written as imbeciles whose actions are determined by flimsy plot devices.
The dramatic interludes are equally rote and by-the-numbers, pure saccharine manipulation underlined by an unctuous, miserable music score (by Nathan Wang) that spells out every onscreen emotion. The third act, which eventually becomes a series of shots where characters sit alone in rooms as they mope and cry, is also too obvious to be the least bit touching. As for the ending, which boils down to the final play of the football season's championship game (the term, "Super Bowl," is noticeably not uttered for copyright issues), it goes wrong in two ways. By switching attention away from the relationship between Joe and Peyton and toward ancient sports clichés, the movie loses sight of what it is really about. It doesn't matter if the Boston Rebels win the big game, and the outcome would have been better off excised. The other misstep with the finale is the reiteration of the movie's flawed ongoing mantra, "Never say no," which is at direct odds with the "just say no" adage kids are taught throughout school. Talk about a mixed message.
"The Game Plan" has a lot of problems, many that have not even be broached, but overall, the picture isn't as hapless as it might sound. Though lacking in originality, the father-daughter material between Joe and Peyton means well and is fairly sweet. Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson (2006's "Gridiron Gang
") is appealing if somewhat stiff as Joe, but newcomer Madison Pettis is a terrific find as Peyton. Pettis has on-target comic timing and gives the role a wise-beyond-her-years quality that, for once, does not sound overly written and superficial, but simply like a young girl who is intelligent for her age. Kyra Sedgwick (2004's "The Woodsman
") brings dignity and a sharp-tongued cutthroat humor to her role as agent Stella Peck, at least up until the point where her character is forced to let out a big fart. Finally, Roselyn Sanchez (2003's "Basic
") is amiable and energetic as Monique, Peyton's ballet instructor and a possible love interest for Joe. In addition to the above-average actors, a few sequences stand out, including a precisely-edited montage scored to ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" and an intense children's ballet performance that is met with some hilariously overdone reaction shots from Joe's teammates in the audience.
Not bad but not good, not surprising but not an outright chore to sit through, not smart yet smarter than, say, 2005's similar Vin Diesel family film, "The Pacifier
," "The Game Plan" is an example of middle-of-the-road insignificance. As an all-audiences crowd-pleaser, the material is inoffensive and, for lack of a better word, tolerable. How much it succeeds at pleasing crowds is up for debate, however. Is it wrong to expect more than minor workmanlike skill from a film as derivative as "The Game Plan" is? No, not when tens of millions of dollars have been spent on a decidedly lame script that fails to properly establish a worthwhile individual identity.