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GEORGE CLOONEY SPORTS LEATHER

 

picture - LeatherheadsMovie Review

by Kevin Bowen

published April 11, 2008

 

Leatherheads

rated PG-13

now playing nationwide

 

Leatherheads kicks off by taking a bad handoff from modern Hollywood myth.

 

The myth of which I speak is that George Clooney is the new Cary Grant. Like all legends, there is some truth to it. He has charm to burn, certainly, and he can properly weight a zinger. But his default posture isn't set on "three sheets to the wind." The esteemed film critic David Thomson compares Clooney to William Holden, often a beat cop of a bruised world. In Clooney's recent string of great burnout roles, there's clearly something to that. So as he burns his charm, the gravity of his presence bends the firelight.

 

So could you imagine Bill Holden as Nick (or Nora)? Or Cary Grant in Sunset Blvd.? I'm sure some film archivist is out there picking through similar examples as we speak, but no, we can't, either. Clooney isn't quite that much of a misfit, but in Leatherheads, his ode to 1920s professional football and 1930s screwball comedies, you do wonder if director Clooney chose the wrong actor.

 

And yet Leatherheads can be, at times, splendidly alive. When it's good, it's outstanding – original, wacky, and delighting in its devotion to Golden Age filmmaking. It relies on screwball comedy's quaint qualities – rapid-fire dialogue, romantic chemistry, and wit as a stand-in for sex. Indeed, when was the last time a romantic comedy had only one kiss to show for its efforts?

 

The setup is as classic as a wingback formation. While the college game thrives, professional football is in its infancy, played by barnstorming teams on muddy Midwestern fields in front of a few dozen spectators. After his team briefly folds, aging star Dodge Connelley bribes college football giant and celebrity war hero Carter Rutherford (The Office's John Krasinski) to join Duluth's ramshackle team. In tow comes their girl Friday, a feisty female reporter from Chicago (Renee Zellweger). If she cooks the goose on the star's fictional war story, she gets a promotion. Traveling with the team, she flirts with the All-American kid, trades barbs with Dodge, and before you know it …

 

For a screwball comedy, Leatherheads makes the unusual trade of velocity for depth. In human terms, it's more The Awful Truth or The Philadelphia Story than Bringing Up Baby. This seems like a snooker, at first, as you expect a brand of comedy thirsty for pace. But as it goes on, you sense a bit of desperation at the bottom of the aging Dodge Connelley's romantic longing and professional dreams. As the clock winds down on the final football game of his career, it adds an autumnal poignancy to the standard football finale.

 

To pigeonhole the film as a classical screwball comedy sells it short. Parts of the movie have a lot of artsy verve. A romantic speakeasy dance breaks into a Keystone Kops routine (as they give the cops the ol' 23-skidoo) and ends in a negative-space kiss. A saloon slug-out between players and soldiers cuts quickly into an arm-in-arm singalong. The men play football in visceral mud pits of ick and saturated yellows, doused in comedy as much as collision. At times, Clooney seems to be lovingly busting genres with the esprit of Godard or Altman. Not only is Clooney a talented director, but also an adventurous one.

 

As much as I would like to declare Leatherheads a success, it can't quite happen. I think too many film writers are beancounting chuckles and missing the quality of some of the filmmaking. Yet even I think it needs to be more humorous more often. While I'm thankful for its bearings, the dialogue doesn't measure up to the best screwball material.

 

But is that a problem with the film? Or the expectations I bring to it? Is it as disjointed as it seems? Or is that a tolerable consequence of being a playful mishmash of styles? I can't make heads or tails of it. So I'll let you choose whether to receive.

 

kevinbowen @ stageandcinema.com

 

 

 
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