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.