Gerard Butler was a person of substance at one point. I'm sure of it.
In fact, the way I first learned his name was watching Joel Schumacher's 2004 adaptation of Phantom of the Opera. Back then I guess they didn't understand the potential appeal of Butler's face, because it spent the whole movie concealed under the phantom's mask. And there may be no character in cinema who takes himself more seriously and has less of a sense of humor than that titular phantom.
But since then? It seems like Butler is trying to emulate the career of Matthew McConaughey more than the career of Hugh Jackman, which should seem the model for a tough, handsome, charming guy who can also sing.
Then again, maybe not even that, as McConaughey has tried to remake himself in the past year with a number of daring roles, while Butler is still stuck in that Playing for Keeps phase that McConaughey has been trying to shrug off.
Playing for Keeps may be a fine movie, but just one look at this poster tells me it it's what I have referred to in the past as "this year's Nancy Meyers movie." (See here for a fuller discussion of this phenomenon.) That poster is not a poster, really. It's a poster template. If you have a romantic comedy with heart that you're releasing during the holiday season, just swap out the title and the head shots of your cast, and blammo, you're ready to go with the next one. In fact, note how similar this poster is to the one for How Do You Know?, which was the inspiration for the linked post about Nancy Meyers. Even down to the stars appearing in squares with different-colored backgrounds.
Also, that title? It's quintessentially bland, and interchangeable with any number of other titles in this genre.
It seems all too easy these days for Butler to take a role like this.
Most people first became aware of Butler from 300, when his iconic shouting and sculpted pecs seemed to destine him for a career comprised of logical offshoots of this film. So I suppose it's to his credit that he hasn't been quite that predictable. I only wish it was good unpredictable rather than bad unpredictable.
Butler's next prominent film was the one that I believe set him off on the wrong track. He made the truly bizarre romantic drama P.S. I Love You, which went back and forth between sickeningly sweet and oddly depressing, as it features a grieving woman (Hilary Swank) going on this intricate gauntlet of self-actualization tasks set up by her dead husband (Butler) while he was dying of cancer. The tone of this movie is all over the place, including a ten-minute argument at the beginning of the movie that's the only scene we actually see between Butler and Swank while he's still alive. Then the rest of this movie is this syrupy succession of cheesy life lessons punctuated by strangely misplaced jokes. I hated it.
In 2008 Butler made at least one good decision, Nim's Island, a kids movie with a ton of heart. I don't know whether RocknRolla was a good decision or not, because I didn't see it. But at least it wasn't a squishy romantic movie.
But 2009 saw him come out with The Ugly Truth, which is the very worst kind of romantic comedy -- a Katherine Heigl romantic comedy. I will grudgingly admit that I liked the first half of the movie, before it went into a tailspin in the second. He finished off 2009 with two truly abysmal movies that both featured the physical Butler, Gamer and Law Abiding Citizen.
In 2010 he was back to a light and fluffy romantic comedy in the form of The Bounty Hunter, which I will also admit had its share of enjoyable moments (while being mediocre at best overall). That year he also provided a voice for How to Train Your Dragon (his voice being one of his most distinctive assets). The following year brought Machine Gun Preacher and Coriolanus (neither of which I've seen, but at least Coriolanus is Shakespeare), and his only other film since then was October's Chasing Mavericks.
Now that I've performed a career recap that you could have easily gotten on IMDB (which is, in fact, where I did get it), I realize that I'm really only talking about four movies when I complain about Butler's tendency toward undemanding romantic dramas/comedies: P.S. I Love You, The Ugly Truth, The Bounty Hunter and now Playing for Keeps. But that's three more than Jackman has made (Kate & Leopold), though still fewer than McConaughey.
Okay okay, Jackman also made Someone Like You in the same year as Kate & Leopold. But this was only one year after Jackman made his splash in X-Men, and it's fair to say he was just taking the opportunities that came to him, glad to be a Hollywood commodity. Butler should be past that phase now.
But maybe the person I should be blaming is Butler's agent. Butler's agent hasn't gotten him a hit in any of the movies Butler has selected since 300, except for How To Train Your Dragon, though the success of that film can hardly be attributed to Butler in any meaningful way.
But maybe I really just shouldn't be comparing Butler to someone like Hugh Jackman. Yeah, both men can sing, but Butler hasn't done it since Phantom, so it hardly seems like that was the way he intended his career to go. And it's hard to compare anyone to one of the breakout stars of the past decade, which I think we can say Jackman is.
I suppose if Butler just ends up as a Scottish McConaughey, there are worse careers he could have.
And that means that sometime in 2017 or 2018, we should expect to see him start playing the roles that McConaughey has been playing in 2012.