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George Clooney's Leatherheads

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Universal)

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Friday, April 04, 2008


Leatherheads
Directed by George Clooney
(Universal)

Reviewed by Justin Stewart

Leatherheads, George Clooney’s latest, chronicles a romantic triangle set amidst the ascent of professional football in mid-Twenties America. It was a time when college ball enjoyed terrific popularity, while the professional variety was viewed as obscene and ridiculous. For many burly part-time jocks, playing the sport for a living was the one way out of factory grind or mineshaft hell. Pads were a few centimeters thick, winning a game by passing was considered unmanly, sports bags concealed flasks — the game was different. With precision set and costume design, a nostalgic light-lager hue, and minute attention to period game play, this tribute does not fail to take you there. As cinematic vacation, it’s transporting — almost clobberingly so. It’s a pleasure to appreciate the efforts of re-creation undertaken here, and easy to assume that the overt shortcomings in comedy and characterization are the result of an inevitable deficit of TLC. But those elements — Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly’s Clooney-polished screenplay, Renee Zellweger’s pursed-lip spitfire reporter — have also been sweat out, and humor, unlike decorative detail, loses charm when it oversells.

The screenplay, affable if rarely laugh-inducing, much like Reilly’s sports columns, is loosely based on the story of Johnny “Blood” McNally, who popularly joined a pro football team while still in college. The basics of McNally’s story, and his eccentricities, are divided here between hotshot Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski of The Office ) and grizzling vet Dodge Connelly (Clooney), an enemy of the rules but a real champion of the game. Framed by a roster of hearty, “colorful” teammates and one very soused reporter (a fun Stephen Root), the two are an ideal duo until Lexie Littleton (Zellweger), a journalist trying to find the proverbial swift boats beneath Rutherford’s spit-polished war hero truth, complicates the situation.

The Zellweger character’s dig into Connelly’s trench heroics in Germany, where he supposedly forced the surrender of an entire enemy unit, is a Clooney flourish, as is the extreme amount of emphasis placed on the saucy he/she repartee. You wonder how much rejiggering and fuss went into the incarnations of a screenplay originally written in the early Nineties, because there is a film that you want to see on the screen, it just often isn’t the one that’s there. Leatherheads is most fun at its rowdiest, when Dodge’s Duluth Bulldogs execute The Rin Tin Tin or Crusty Bob on a mucky field or indiscriminately heave fists around in a bar to Randy Newman’s puckish ragtime. Here it scrapes Horse Feathers heights of anarchy, and shows hints that, even though a comedy, it could have been the definitive film on football’s birth into acceptance — if it were interested in such a thing. The nuts-and-bolts, stats-book historical specifics mostly sneak in on the periphery. Clooney mistakenly tries to center the tension on the exposure of the ballyhooed “Bullet” Rutherford, but the scenes with various Army figures and the lawyer Frazier (Jonathan Pryce) are a methodical bore, detention compared with the recess of the Bulldogs’ all-American vulgarity.

Rampantly screwball, Leatherheads is decidedly more Intolerable Cruelty than it is Good Night and Good Luck. Huge chunks are devoted to face-offs between Lexie and Dodge (her match) and Carter (her prey). These routinely drag, and often fizzle while trying to crackle, but then a fresh barb (“How quiet it must be at the Algonquin with you here in Duluth”) revives them. You want every retort to zing, if only because this is the only screwball in town. In an age when they poured from the dream factory, audiences would be less apt to snag their enjoyment on the fumbles and false starts. A younger crowd tuned to Superbad doesn’t know the genre, and older audiences mostly remember the classics; if the likes of His Girl Friday and Ball of Fire are the standards, Leatherheads can be forgiven for falling short.

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