Featuring Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson and Madison Pettis, The Game Plan feels both grimly modern and charmingly retro. The plot, with Johnson's all-star pro football quarterback discovering he's the father of an 8-year-old girl (Pettis), feels like it was deliberately calculated in some horrible, airless conference room at Disney where a group of development execs were locked in and denied lattes and e-mail until they came up with the perfect movie for separated dads to take their 'tween daughters to during court-mandated custodial weekends. At the same time, The Game Plan has the gentle, breezy execution of prior Disney family films like The Parent Trap and Freaky Friday, where the children are plucky, the parents are clueless-yet-kindhearted and the plot's schemes and complications all culminate in a cleansing, healing hug at the happy ending. Walking out of The Game Plan, I snuck a peek at my watch -- not because I was curious about the hour, but because The Game Plan was so numbingly, charming similar to Disney family films from years gone by I thought I might have fallen through a wormhole back to the Carter administration.
The timeless-but-not-quite-tired nature of the pitch can explain a lot of that feeling; strip away the more modern details, and you could have made The Game Plan in the '50s or '70s with Hayley Mills or the young Jodie Foster as Peyton. Johnson is Joe "The King" Kingman, ace QB for the Boston Rebels. Joe's bravado and self-regard would be unbearable, but for the fact that he can deliver: During the fourth down with the clock running in the game they have to win to make it to the playoffs, Joe tells his teammates "Everyone get on The King's back and I will lead you to the promised land." And they do, and he does. Joe lives in one of those stylized ice-kingdom high-tech apartments, makes money for himself and his agent (Kyra Sedgwick) and enjoys the good life, despite a nagging feeling of ennui and never having won a championship. At which point the plucky, perky Peyton (Pettis) shows up: She's his daughter, a reminder of a long-past, long-over marriage in Joe's youth. Apparently Joe's ex-wife Sarah is off to Africa for a month, and she's leaving Peyton with Joe. Joe is not necessarily prepared for this, and the film hurls itself into wringing laughs from all of the flailing and fumbling that adjustment entails. Peyton figures Joe out immediately: "You sure got a lot of pictures of yourself in here. ..." Joe has no clue about how to be a father figure, let alone an actual father; he barely has a sense of how to be a grown-up.
But Hollywood wouldn't return to the "bad dad/cute kid" pairing over and over like it does if it didn't work so well every time. And, to The Game Plan's benefit, both Johnson and Pettis pull out all the stops, mounting a charm offensive that makes the Normandy invasion look like a pop 'round to the neighbor's place in comparison. Johnson is glib and goofy and blithely blockheaded -- saying Joe thinks he's the center of the universe implies Joe can form a concept of the universe outside of his own head, which he may, in fact, not be able to. Joe is also a bad actor -- and Johnson, a good actor, conveys that in a way that gets laughs at his expense. And Pettis -- who, apparently has already been generating revenue for the Walt Disney corporation as part of Corey in the House -- is also a plucky little charmer with the fresh face of a newcomer and the comedy timing of a seasoned pro.
The Game Plan may be a stack of clichés, but, again, they're well-executed. Joe will open up his heart to Peyton, Peyton will come clean about her real reasons for landing with Joe, and lessons will be learned just in time for the big game between Boston and New York and the sideline reunion and reconciliation between Joe and Peyton. Joe tries to sum up his confusion for Peyton in the language of his life: "The quarterback's supposed to know the play book better than anyone else ... but I've just joined the dad team." It's a groan-inducing riff ... but Johnson and Pettis sell it, and their selling it makes it abundantly clear just how well director Andy Fickman knows the family-flick play book. Fickman is not afraid to stoop, either -- The Game Plan includes such standby jokes as the scary-but-sentimental linebacker, the ugly dog in a dress, the big guy in the tiny chair, the child-enacted bedazzling of much-loved grown-up items, the misuse of bubble bath. For anyone over 20, these jokes are as old as ... well, as they are. For anyone under 12, they represent stratospheric new frontiers of comedy.
Again, The Game Plan is pitched at kids, not their grown-up escorts -- there's ballet and bonding, mild peril and much-improved parenting. Blessedly, there's also one -- and only one -- body-functions joke. I know that sounds like faint praise, but after the coming of Shrek, it's nearly impossible to witness a kid's movie that doesn't have a symphony of burps, belches and bubbles of tummy trouble; The Game Plan's single gas gag makes it something like refined in comparison. The Game Plan is as cute as a pail of kittens and about as orderly, but -- thanks to Johnson and Pettis and Fickman -- it works as a pretty solid example of how the skillful execution of some of the oldest plays in the book can still get the ball to the end zone.