Leatherheads (2008) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: Rated PG-13 for brief strong language
Running Time: 114 min.
Cast: George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Root, Wayne Duvall, Keith Loneker, Malcolm Goodwin, Matt Bushell, Tommy Hinkley, Tim Griffin, Robert Baker
Cameo: Randy Newman
Director: George Clooney
Screenplay: Duncan Brantley, Rick Reilly
Director-star George Clooney (Good Night and Good Luck, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) wanted to make a solid screwball comedy like they made them back in the 1920s and 1930s, and while some of that style does make it into Leatherheads, the lackadaisical, whimsical nature of it is more reminiscent of the comedies made in the more contemplative, character-driven 1970s. Quick-witted dialogue and nuanced characterizations rarely mix well, and though there's enough entertainment value here to ultimately prove worthwhile for genre nuts and fans of the stars, it just never translates into genuine excitement. It's a good looking film though, and nothing stands out as particularly bad about it, but its main disappointment stems from the lack of lows balanced out by its lack of highs. Leatherheads is, in football terms, a well-executed drive that only results in a field goal.
The story is set in professional football's early days of the mid-1920s. Clooney casts himself as aging athlete "Dodge" Connolly, running back for the upstart Duluth Bulldogs. He's not above cheating to get ahead, and also a semi-savior for the game, as he pulls out a deal to take it from an amateur pastime to a professional juggernaut by getting the most talented college player, a war hero named Carter Rutherford (Krasinski, License to Wed), to join the team. The media soon follows suit, and no one gets closer to the action than spunky reporter Lexie Littleton (Zellweger, Bee Movie), whose tenacity for the truth gets tested when she develops feelings for the men she follows, including Rutherford, who, through not much fault of his own, has been pumped up to be something he isn't in terms of his heroism. Just as Rutherford's reputation grows too large for him to get a handle on anymore, so does the game of football for Connolly, as the lucrative game draws out bigger fish who want a piece of the pie.
The story on this film is that it had been written, with the insight of credited sportswriters Rick Reilly and Duncan Brantley, nearly two decades before, kicked around as an idea for a while, ultimately landing in Clooney's lap. Clooney performed an extensive rewrite, to which he was denied co-writer credit, but ultimately tailored it to the kind of madcap romantic comedy he had envisioned from the beginning. Clooney imbues Leatherheads with a light and energetic tone, somewhat irresistible for its nostalgic bells and whistles that manage to help the thin material elevate to entertaining status. The leads are solid, with impish Clooney delivering the boyish charisma with ease, meeting his match in Zellweger as a another person who always seems to be able to fend off his verbal spars blow for blow. It's important in a screwball romance that the players can banter tit for tat, and the always spirited Zellweger's casting secures it.
Clooney borrows heavily from the tone of such screwball stalwarts as George Cukor, Preston Sturgess, and a bit of Howard Hawks, at least in terms of the delivery. What ultimately keeps Leatherheads from taking off is the lack of really good, snarky delivery in the script. There's only so much that fun actors and a likeable approach can achieve. Without a crackerjack script, the well-earned smiles never translate into genuine laughs. It also doesn't help that it's hard to get a finger on just what the crux of the film is. The storyline goes several different directions, from romance to a war story to a football rivalry, but none of them takes hold with enough verve to build up the big on-the-field climax to thrills.
What's left is an enjoyably breezy film, with good performances, sumptuous visual aesthetic, and easygoing tone. Perhaps if Clooney had handed the script over to someone to work on the structure of the story, we'd have a film that would secure across-the-board raves instead of the mixed feelings it has gotten from most. Like the early days of football, screwball comedies are fun because they defy the rules in the interest of showmanship. However, contrary to how it might appear, screwball "spontaneity" is the result of finely-honed, impeccably-timed precision, not on-the-spot improvisations in the huddle.
©2008 Vince Leo