Leatherheads

April, 2008, Comedy

It sounds like a great premise for box-office success; a movie about the early days of no-holds-barred professional football, done in the wise-cracking style of those zany 1930’s comedies with stars like Roz Russell, Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable and Cary Grant, working under the direction of a Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges or Frank Capra. Toss in a starring role by George Clooney, who also agrees to direct. Should be a no-brainer, right? Think again.

There are so many things wrong with this film it’s hard to know where to begin, but we can start by laying most of the blame squarely on Mr. Clooney; as producer, director, star and putative author, (he lost an argument with the screenwriter’s guild to win a credit for re-writing Duncan Brantley & Rick Reilly’s script) it will be difficult for the man Time magazine recently described as “The Last Hollywood Star” to duck well-deserved razz-berries for this one. 

Clooney plays “Dodge” Connelly, an over-the-hill star of the 1925 Duluth Bulldogs, a failing team in America’s then fledgling professional football league. He recruits Carter Rutherford, (John Krasinski) an outstanding player at Princeton and WW I war hero, to leave school and join Clooney and The Bulldogs, unaware that Lexie Littleton, (Renee Zellweger)  tart-tongued reporter for the Chicago Tribune, is surreptitiously investigating the young star’s war record. It will come as no surprise that Dodge and Carter each make a play for Lexie nor that she uncovers Carter’s duplicity and writes her expose, causing Carter to decamp for Chicago where he becomes an instant star for that city’s team. After a climatic game with The Bulldogs, (settled in a manner only Wrong-Way Corrigan could think strategically satisfying) Dodge and Lexie ride off into the sunset- - literally - - on his antique motorcycle, complete with sidecar and cloyingly cute voiceover….

Leatherhead’s script is loaded with lines that have a ring of discontinuity about them, probably due to the fact that Clooney re-worked a script that Messrs. Brantley and Reilly wrote more than 17 years ago. The dialogue thus lurches between self-conscious attempts to ape the exchanges found in such old newspaper classics as Front Page and the type of hip asides to be found in the worst moments of Clooney’s trifecta of heist movies, (Ocean’s 11, 12 & 13). The storyline isn’t any help here either; despite its apparent focus on the transition of the sport from unregulated manipulation to rules-based competition, the script identifies illegal tactics with slang terms that aren’t defined as it jumps as from locker room to playing field to speakeasy to Keystone Kops shenanigans which only serve to pad out the film’s over-long 114-minute running time.

Adding insult to injury, Krasinski and Zellweger are hopelessly mis-cast; he’s attractive enough in a bland, Ivy League, pretty-boy kind of way, but completely unbelievable as the kind of scholar-athlete who can take a lickin’ and keep on kickin’. The cupie-doll sweetness that’s become Ms. Zellweger stock in trade just doesn’t fit the chain-smoking, proto-feminist Lexie; as a result, both actors labor to get inside characters that are essentially listless and unappealing.

Clooney’s previous efforts as an actor/director, (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck) worked well precisely because his on-screen contributions in them were so nicely muted, providing interesting background rather than principal focus. Here, Clooney comes close to outright mugging for the camera, allowing it to spend far too much time lingering on his always handsome visage. Yes, he’s indisputably good-looking, but his performance hints at egocentricity, undercutting the actor’s carefully groomed reputation as someone who doesn’t take himself all that seriously. 

Clooney’s earned a lot of press coverage in the last month as he and Zellweger toured small town America promoting Leatherheads from the back of trains as though they were running for political office. It won’t work; this turkey can be confidently described as DOA at the box-office.

The verdict? Don’t see it, don’t rent it, don’t speak of it again.

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