A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, PG-13, 116 mins.


Dodge: George Clooney / Carter: John Krasinski / Lexie: Renee Zellweger / CC Frazier: Jonathan Pryce / Suds: Stephen Root / Ferguson: Wayne Duvall

Directed by George Clooney / Written by Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly

George Clooney’s LEATHERHEADS – his third film both behind and in front of the camera - attempts a Hail Mary as a throwback screwball farce picture, but it fails to gain any serious comedic yards during its near two-hour time frame.   

It’s abundantly clear that Clooney is passionate about the material, not to mention that he can play a Gary Grant-esque stud/buffoon to just the right camera-mugging effect.  The spirit of the film is cute, bubbly, and spirited, but the whole enterprise feels more dull and trite.  I grinned a lot, smiled occasionally, and even chuckled here and there, but in terms of maintaining a laugh-out-loud potency, LEATHERHEADS is a bit of a misfire. 

Clooney has quickly and firmly established himself as one of the best actor-turned-directors of recent memory.  He made a splash with his brilliant directorial debut, the noir-inspired political drama/thriller CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (which I proudly placed very high on my list of the Ten Best Films of 2002).  He followed that up with the involving, fascinating – if not moderately flawed – Cold War era semi-biopic about Edward R. Murrow, GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK.  Now comes LEATHERHEADS which does score some points for the somewhat virginal filmmaker in the sense that he is at least attempting different genres, time periods, and moods with each new film.  The film also shows Clooney’s giddy appreciation for the light-as-a-feather screwball farces of the 30’s and 40’s that preceded it.  It’s clear that he is an astute and sharp-witted student of films and genres, but watching LEATHERHEADS it's clear that he has read through the Howard Hawks, George Cukor, and Preston Sturgess playbooks, but he seems to have neglected to study them observantly. 

The screwball comedy has always remained one of the most indelible and pervasive of all film genres.  They are typified by farcical situations, a combination of slapstick pratfalls and witty banter, plots involving a 'meet cute', and –more often than not – deliciously flirtatious banter between the leading man and lady.  Oh, and these films are also riotously funny.  LEATHERHEADS has nearly all of the mentioned ingredients, but its problem is that it admires these wonderful films of yesteryear with a star struck nostalgia without standing firmly on its own two feet.  More than anything, the film feels awash in retro-style and flavor, but without much originality and cleverness. 

The film – alongside being a nutty romantic comedy – is also a raucous coming of age comedy about the beginnings of pro-football in America.  The script has remained dormant for nearly 20 years and was penned by Sports Illustrated writers Duncan Brantley and Rick Reily.  Clooney apparently completely re-envisioned the script as a screwball farce and made drastic alterations (it has been said that only a small handful of scenes from the original remained intact, but Clooney – being a fair chap – did not want his name overwhelming the marquee over the writers, so he abandoned any screenwriting credit, a move of startling modesty).   

The film is set in 1925 and has Clooney playing somewhat over-the-hill, forty-something football player Jimmy “Dodge” Connolly (apparently based on real-life 20’s football star Johnny “Blood” McNally, who played on multiple NFL teams through the 20’s and 30’s).  Dodge plays for the financially strapped and generally talantless Duluth Bulldogs.  At this time football is in no way shape or form a popular sport it would later become: pro games are played on dilapidated, mud covered fields, rules are non-existent, and spectators are in the teens, not thousands.  College football, on the other hand, has widespread appeal and universal acclaim and thrives.  Dodge faces the proposition that pro football could be going bye-bye real soon, which sort of lurches on his conscious. 

Of course, he is a man of ingenuity and sass.  He hatches a sly plan and approaches a rich sports promoter C.C. Frazier (Jonathan Pryce) and develops a lucrative business plan to put pro football on the map.  Dodge wants to recruit university player – and former WWI hero – Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) to play for the Bulldogs for a whopping five grand per game.  Carter migrating to the team may hugely boost the gate receipts and give pro ball some much-needed legitimacy.  It seems like the perfect marriage because, after all, Carter is a widely lauded war hero that saved his men from the onslaught of the German army and single-handedly caused them to surrender…

...or did he really? 

The legitimacy of Carter’s service record and story of battlefront heroism hits the editor’s desk of the Chicago Tribune and he, in turn, gives the assignment to a feisty and empowered reporter, affectionately named Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger) and she attempts to get to the bottom of Carter’s real war time experience.  At first, she’s smitten with the handsome Carter, but Dodge is a man of limitless charisma and bravado, so it’s of no surprise that the two have the obligatory battle of wills and fall for one another with relative ease. 

There is a lot going for LEATHERHEADS, namely the evocative art direction and costumes, which effortlessly whisks viewers to the Roaring Twenties.  The overall mood and tone of the performances are purposely broad, fast paced, and lively, which, of course, is what screwball farces contain.  Clooney is able to fluently and expeditiously morph into the dashing, dapper, handsome, and frequently foolish and clumsy Dodge and knows how to work around this material.  His co-star Zellweger also plays her role with spunk, low-key sex appeal, and a tough, trash-talking brazenness.  The best scenes in the film are the verbal gymnastics the two engage in while courting, and the dialogue here is fruitful, colorful, and perfectly timed.  Watching Clooney and Zellweger confidently breeze though these moments is a real treat. 

Yet, the film around the pair never gels with cohesion and we get a considerable amount awkwardly cobbled together themes.  This film wants to be a screwball romantic comedy, a football comedy, an underdog overcoming all odds picture, and – in the least well developed theme – a revealing portrait about how the media ignorantly engages in hero worship during times of war without dissecting the truth behind the stories.  The film’s somberness with this latter story thread kind of grinds its effervescent and silly sensibilities to a screeching halt.  Carter’s war story is also oddly intertwined with that of how pro football became a business during which fiscal imperatives overrode the fun of playing the game.  The love triangle between Carter, Dodge and Lexie is weakly developed and never fully explored, which should have prominence for this kind of film.  Krasinski is also miscast as Carter and misplays him:  He’s an affable and pleasing on-screen presence, but his performance seems too genuine and earnest, especially when compared to the loose and carefree knucklehead antics of Clooney.  The farcical tone of LEATHERHEADS could have been strengthened if he played Carter as a balls-to-the-wall sneering villain. 

Perhaps the most glaring deficiency of the film is that it simply is not consistently and rowdily funny, which I think is what it’s aiming for.  Yes, the film has tenacity and a willingness to be goofy, but laughs are not aplenty.  There are some cheeky slapstick moments, like when Carter inadvertently sets himself on fire, or when a fist fight between himself and Dodge is constantly halted by their respective preaching of rules of conduct.  Some of the football montages are amusing, but they're comedically limp (one joke involving a conservative sportscaster and a vulgarity is one of the worst telegraphed and handled jokes in any recent comedy).  A would be hilarious sight gag involving an incredibly large and obese player whose only ambition is to be the kicker is never really capitalized on.  On top of that, the personalities on the field around Clooney are all poorly envisioned as comic creations. 

LEATHERHEADS  wants to be pure nostalgia and a throwback film to the Golden Age of screwball and romantic farces.  It has the trappings, the look, the feel and the sharp, acid tongued, and rapid-fire dialogue and repartee between actors, but the film is too peculiar with its conglomerated genres and elements and never fully emerges as an unwieldy gag-a-minute, boisterous, smart-alecky hoot.  The film is likeable enough and blustery, but the highjinks never really achieve a noteworthy comic velocity that these types of pictures in the past have maintained.  To see what I mean go out and rent The Marx Brothers’ 1932 lowbrow masterpiece HORSE FEATHERS, which also exploits the early days of football for endless laughter.  The director in Clooney wants to pay homage to it and others like it, but he fumbles the ball far too much here in a moderately disagreeable effort.

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