Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Director: George Clooney
Screenwriters: Duncan Brantley, Rick Reilly
Starring: George Clooney, Renée Zellweger, John Krasinski
For something that was pitched as a screwball comedy, Leatherheads is kind of lumbering, unwieldy, and awkward. There are laughs, but there’s no pop — scenes go on too long, and the classic-Hollywood feel seems to have been forced on the film. George Clooney, who produced, directed, ghost-wrote and stars, tells an good story but can’t quite get the tone right. The movie is interesting enough to be frustrating.
It’s particularly a shame because I was looking forward to another comedic effort from Clooney. I think he’s a boring action hero and a serviceable dramatic actor, but in comedies he displays a playfulness and self-effacing sensibility that are incredibly endearing and often hilarious. You see some of that here: there’s a wonderful moment early on when Clooney, playing a professional football player in the 1920’s, is running for a touchdown and realizes that he is about to crash into a defenseman roughly three times his size. With blocking being a non-starter in those days, we see him roll his eyes, bow his head, and steel himself for a hit, all in about a second and a half. It may not sound funny, but it gets a laugh because of Clooney’s willingness to toy with his square-jawed persona.
There are a few moments like that in this ambitious story of professional football’s birth throes, and a few instances of delightful verbal wit (I loved when Clooney’s Dodge Connelly tries to get an important businessman on the phone, and tells a recalcitrant secretary “I’ve never heard of you either, miss” before getting hung up on). On the other hand, a lot of scenes fall flat trying for old-fashioned charm — for example, an extended fistfight between Dodge and his golden-boy rival (John Krasinski) that begins with them listing their ailments and agreeing to “just go for the face,” and ends with them alternating punches for what seems like an eternity, simply isn’t funny even if you can see what Clooney is going for.
A lot of the movie languishes in this way, especially the relationships between Dodge, Krasinski’s Carter Rutherford, and Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger), a tough reporter assigned to expose the latter’s war hero reputation as a crock. Lexie is more archetype than character, and her zingers don’t have much bite; sparks never fly. Clooney is clearly trying to achieve a fast, crackling, theatrical back-and-forth, but the energy is just not there. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day did this sort of thing much better.
Leatherheads has some valuable things to say about the commercialization of sports and the power of celebrity. Its fanciful chronicle of the effect of money on football is interesting because it isn’t cut-and-dried: though Clooney seems frustrated that the sport’s surging popularity and profit potential made it more regimented and thus less fun, he also admits that the higher stakes improved the caliber of the game. His portrayal of football’s launch into the mainstream as a result of the shrewd harnessing of celebrity and personality is insightful and rings true.
None of this, however, is aided by the film’s length or self-indulgence. It needed to be lighter on its feet and willing to go farther for a laugh. Leatherheads is charming in spots, but mostly it’s like an airplane stranded on the tarmac.