April 10, 2008

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Leatherheads (PG-13)
George Clooney pulls his best Clark Gable face but he just can’t make me give a damn in Leatherheads, the screwball comedy I very much wanted to like but just couldn’t 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 gentleman’s sport — well-funded and -attended — in college, in the pros, players can barely make ends meet and they share the field with grazing cows. When Dodge’s 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 “the Bullet,” a star of college football and a bona fide war hero (that’s World War I). If the Bullet takes his last semester (or something — 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 editor’s desk at her Chicago newspaper and, frankly, “editor” and “big time” aren’t normally words you’d see together, especially when joined by the word “assistant”). 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 isn’t totally on the level — 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 isn’t any and there aren’t 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 they’re only pretending to disagree. Or rather, it’s 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 can’t keep artfully hitting balls over the net (to wildly mix my sports) without ever having them returned and still seem like he’s winning the match.

I happen to like this kind of rat-a-tat romance very much — it’s the reason I like His Girl Friday and why I’m 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 won’t delete it right away. About half of the non-Zellweger scenes are funny or at least tolerably cute. The movie’s final 30 minutes aren’t 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.