A film review by Craig J. Koban
2008, PG-13, 116 mins.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.