George Clooney’s third directorial effort is undoubtedly his least successful to date. But then Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) and Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) are tough acts to follow, and if he doesn’t quite equal those, he also doesn’t disgrace them. Clooney’s attempt to recreate the world of 1930s and ‘40s screwball comedy—with more than a touch of the sometimes-connected newspaper comedy—may not always ring the gong, but it makes for an unfailingly pleasant two hours of entertainment. It’s also shrewdly balanced entertainment, because its football story is sufficient to keep it from being a standard modern rom-com, while not actually requiring more than the most basic understanding of the game.
Clooney stars as Dodge Connelly, a 45-year-old pro-football player in 1925—a time when pro football was a joke and all the interest centered on college games. When his ragtag team, the Duluth Bulldogs, runs out of money and teams to play (as more and more other teams cease to exist), he hits on the idea of recruiting the hottest college player in the country, Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski, TV’s The Office). Not only is Rutherford the biggest name in college football, but he’s a bona fide war hero in the bargain. There’s only one catch: Ace Chicago reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) has been sent by her paper to dig up the dirt on Rutherford’s heroism and discredit him.
It follows, of course, that Dodge and Lexie supposedly hate each other at first sight, meaning in 1930s comedy terms that what they really feel is just the opposite. And it also follows that Carter will become enamored of Lexie himself, which is a pretty hopeless situation, since in keeping with the era the film attempts to recall, Carter would have been played by Ralph Bellamy if the stars had been Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. In other words, Carter is an example of the Boobus Americanus, and as such, is the poor schlub who can’t get the girl. All this is fine. It deftly recalls the movies of filmmakers like Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey and Preston Sturges.
There’s a downside, though, since the movie also wants to recall the work of Frank Capra—most specifically Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Both of these movies feature Jean Arthur as the big-city reporter out to bring down a poor hick who’s come to the city—Gary Cooper in the former, James Stewart in the latter. And in both cases, Ms. Arthur finds herself falling for her prey and being shamed by her actions. It works in a Capra picture, but Capra pictures aren’t screwball comedies. They’re softer, more sentimental works, and that’s why the Capra element here feels phony. It’s also half-assed, since we know Lexie isn’t going to be “reformed” by Carter’s innate goodness. It doesn’t help that John Krasinski is a little in the charisma-challenged league—something aggravated by him trying to share the screen with Clooney.
That said, most of the movie works and effectively captures the spirit of its models—even to appropriating its ending gag from the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races (1937). Clooney seems to have taken Preston Sturges’ old dictum that “a pratfall is better than anything” and injected a good deal of physical comedy into the proceedings. A few of the sequences that use this formula—especially Clooney and Zellweger escaping a speakeasy raid—provide the film’s funniest moments.
Visually, Clooney has also done pretty nicely by the period, though the decision to put the late ‘30s Universal logo on the film is dicey. Aurally, he’s on less solid terrain. The few pop songs in the film are of the right era, but the actual recordings are not (take the 1946 recording of Al Jolson singing “Toot Toot Tootsie”). Worse, there’s Randy Newman’s (who has a cameo in the movie) 1920s pastiche score, which sounds a lot more like Randy Newman than it sounds like 1925. Go listen to Paul Englishby’s faux-period score in the recent Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and you’ll hear this sort of thing done right. But overall, this is a worthy effort, and so amusingly agreeable that I’m not complaining too much. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.