The irony about George Clooney’s third directorial effort is that the film could have an unpredictable impact on Clooney’s career but not in any way that viewers will ever see or realize. Offscreen politics prompted the writer/director/actor to all but resign his membership in the Writer’s Guild when the WGA gave screenwriting credit to Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly. The duo wrote the original screenplay 17 years ago, but Clooney revised it so heavily that producer Grant Heslov says only the last couple of scenes have any resemblance to the Brantley/Reilly draft.
In another decade we’ll see if Clooney’s non-voting status in the WGA really has bearing on his career. For now there’s Leatherheads, and while it most certainly has no bearing on anything, it’s a lot more entertaining than guild politics.
The setting is the formative fields of the NFL. College ball is a popular event but pro football is barely a blip on the sporting radar. Carter ‘The Bullet’ Rutherford (John Krasinski), handsome war hero and excellent football player, is lighting up the field at Princeton. Dodge Connelly (Clooney), an aging but enduring veteran, is doggedly churning the turf for Duluth’s struggling professional Bulldogs. The two intersect when Dodge recruits Carter for the Bulldogs just as Chicago Tribune reporter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger) arrives to punch holes in Carter’s heroic rep.
The Sarris definition of screwball comedy always seemed good enough for me: “a sex comedy without the sex”. Whatever was in the original Brantley/Reilly draft, the premise as seen here is ideal for Clooney’s screwball retrofit. A love triangle with older and younger men wooing a lass in man-size shoes during the unruly (read: slapstick) early days of football should be an ideal excuse to recapture at least some of the glory of The Awful Truth and It Happened One Night.
But goddamn, that glory is elusive. Common wisdom rightly holds that the screwball comedy is difficult to replicate out of context. Trademark quick quips were fast in comparison to the relatively slow film pacing of the time, and their wit was informed by skills imported from radio; making a blanket statement here about how today’s films — even just the upper echelon — are less word-wise than those 70 years ago is probably foolish, but it often feels that way.
And there’s something to different moral, cultural and sexual contexts too; the Hays code meant that certain jokes represented getting away with something. Now even if the gag is really good, it’s still just a gag.
That’s a history lesson you probably don’t need, and doesn’t even speak to the fact that films like The Awful Truth, against which Leatherheads obviously doesn’t hope to compare, are pinnacles of cinema that will end up being touchstones merely by virtue of the screwball comedy tag.
Which is all a long way of saying that Cloney’s movie is pretty good, but on this playing field it doesn’t really stand a chance. It’s diverting, personable and easy on the eyes. The direction is laissez-faire; he doesn’t push any point too hard and keeps the lens back away from the action. But he also doesn’t really live in the movie — it seems to want to be old-timey, but that’s not possible, and so a lot of the action feels like a put-on.
As Dodge, Clooney musters the same charm that was memorable in his Coen Brothers films and Renee Zellweger has the proper sass and timing, though if she seems at least as old as Clooney. But I felt like they were playing it safe; even a wild comedic setup like using a ledge-jumper’s safety net to escape the cops comes across with all the punch of a first-day rehearsal.
It’s Krasinski that ends up being the weak link. He’s cuddly and looks great on the field, but never poses even a weak romantic threat to Dodge. When not playing football he wears a boyish moon face that blunts his impact.
That makes a certain sense, given that Carter Rutherford turns out to be this movie’s political foil. His part of the plot is all about truth versus myth, so the ‘boy in a man’s world’ feeling he exudes isn’t out of place. But on a basic character level Clooney barely engages the conflict even as a resulting newspaper scandal and the emergence of the first NFL commissioner seek to push it into the realm of bigger social commentary.
And though football is ideal fodder for slapstick, Leatherheads has as much to do with the game as Semi-Pro did basketball. But as the resolution looms Clooney becomes suddenly enamored with the game, delivering a eulogy for dirty plays and fun tricks outlawed by the first commissioner. But Clooney never shows us that stuff in action in the first place; we see a lot of roughshod football, but we’re never privy to Dodge’s bag of underhanded tricks. When we’re suddenly told that they’re verboten, I shrugged.
I wasn’t much impressed with The Hudsucker Proxy on day one, but I’ve warmed up to it. It’s difficult to do anything else when faced with a concentrated dose of the Coen’s most ridiculous charm. But Leatherheads, despite a fun supporting cast and a few good comic moments, relies primarily on the much more familiar charm of George Clooney. That’s enough to rate as an evening’s entertainment, but little more.