April 10, 2008
George Clooney pulls his best Clark Gable face but he just canít make me give a damn in Leatherheads, the screwball comedy I very much wanted to like but just couldnít quite.
Dodge Connolly (Clooney) is a coach and player in the professional-wrestling-like world of professional football, circa 1925. While the game is a gentlemanís sport ó well-funded and -attended ó in college, in the pros, players can barely make ends meet and they share the field with grazing cows. When Dodgeís beloved Duluth Bulldogs fold for want of funds, he decides to throw the ultimate Hail Mary pass (yes, sorry, the movie pretty much demands sports metaphors) and goes after Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), nicknamed ďthe Bullet,Ē a star of college football and a bona fide war hero (thatís World War I). If the Bullet takes his last semester (or something ó this movie plays fairly fast and loose with timelines) off from Princeton to play for Duluth, then Dodge knows he can energize support (fan and financial) for the team and bring legitimacy to the sport.
Meanwhile, Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger) is a no-nonsense girl reporter with her eyes fixed on the big time (which, here, is represented by the assistant editorís desk at her Chicago newspaper and, frankly, ďeditorĒ and ďbig timeĒ arenít normally words youíd see together, especially when joined by the word ďassistantĒ). Her boss tells her that the surest way to prove her mettle is to do a story on Carter, one that debunks his legendary war record, which involves getting a big gaggle of Germans to surrender. Of course, her assignment to the Carter beat isnít totally on the level ó she was likely picked for her nice gams, a strategy that works when Carter becomes instantly besotted with her.
In spite of himself Dodge is pretty besotted as well and from the moment they meet Dodge and Lexie try their damnedest to win the His Girl Friday contest.
And here is where our troubles begin. The whole cherry that this Shirley Temple is built around, the lime in this gimlet, the meow of this particular cat is the witty banter and flying sparks between Dodge and Lexie. Except there isnít any and there arenít any and the result is one mighty flat strawberry phosphate.
Clooney and Zellweger have the kind of chemistry of a divorced couple seething with hatred for each other but wanting to play it off like theyíre only pretending to disagree. Or rather, itís Zellweger who seems to seethe with hatred (or maybe just deep deep confusion) in this stock character of a sassy girl reporter and Clooney is left to generate all the heat himself. And, while he is ever so dapper, Clooney just canít keep artfully hitting balls over the net (to wildly mix my sports) without ever having them returned and still seem like heís winning the match.
I happen to like this kind of rat-a-tat romance very much ó itís the reason I like His Girl Friday and why Iím one of the minority who likes The Hudsucker Proxy. I sort of suspect that Clooney had something like that Coen Brothers movie in mind here, only lighter and not as idiosyncratic. But it was the quirks that made that little-seen riff on a Mr. Deeds Goes to Town-style of movie enjoyable (again, pretty much only to me and, maybe, people related to the Coens). Here, a lack of quirk has led to a lack of spark and all that fine period dialogue and swell costuming just feels stagey.
Having said all that, if, some months or maybe years from now, my well-trained TiVo records this movie, I probably wonít delete it right away. About half of the non-Zellweger scenes are funny or at least tolerably cute. The movieís final 30 minutes arenít nearly as good as its initial 30 minutes, but a scheming Clooney is almost always a funny Clooney and he does, as a director, have a feel for the pacing of this kind of film. Could another actress have saved this potentially loveable mess? Where is the modern-day Rosalind Russell? C+
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. Directed by George Clooney and written by Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, Leatherheads is an hour and 54 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Universal Pictures Distribution.