Leatherheads

Movie Information

The Story: An aging football player in the early days of pro football hits on a scheme to make the sport popular -- and profitable. The Lowdown: An altogether enjoyable attempt at recreating the 1930s-'40s style of romantic comedy.
Score:

Genre: Romantic Comedy
Director: George Clooney
Starring: George Clooney, Renée Zellweger, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce, Wayne Duvall
Rated: PG-13

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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

5 thoughts on “Leatherheads

  1. Was it just me or did it feel like Renee Zellweger was somewhat miscast in this movie? She played well off of Clooney, especially during the scenes where lightning-fast insult banter is supposed to be some sort of courtship ritual, but something seemed a little off. At one point I was imagining Jennifer Jason Leigh in that part, although with much less Hepburn mimicry than she displayed in The Hudsucker Proxy.

    Not a bad way to spend a couple of hours, though.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I wasn’t enthused about Zellweger’s casting, but liked her well enough in the actual movie. You’ve probably named the one person I can think of (well, there’s Sarah Jessica Parker) I would have strongly less desired to see in the role, though! I tend to find Jason Leigh far too arch and mannered for my taste — something that HUDSUCKER in part caused — and I really have trouble imagining her pulling off the film’s broader comic moments. Actually, I’m planning on watching HUDSUCKER again in the near future. Maybe I’ll change my mind afterwards.

  3. Jessamyn

    No, you won’t. I really want to like her in those types of roles, but I just can’t. Mrs. Parker drove me nuts, too. There’s something really artificial about them – I mean, I know that this form of speech and delivery is inherently artificial, but when Rosalind Russell or Kate Hepburn do it, it feels like it’s become second nature to them. Whereas with Jason Leigh it feels like a veneer, like when the director yells “Cut!” she’ll immediately drop it.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Well, I haven’t tried the experiment yet, but I have a hunch you’re right.

  5. I think the time might be ripe for another stab at this sort of thing. I’d love a modern day screwball revival with Clooney and Robert Downey Jr in the Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart roles. Who would play the Kate Hepburn part though? I think Amy Adams would bring the right qualities to the part, but she might be a little young to play off Clooney? Maybe Clive Owen could be her Cary Grant? He has a wonderful touch for comedic dialogue that hasn’t really been properly exploited outside of DUPLICITY.

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