GEORGE CLOONEY SPORTS LEATHER
by Kevin Bowen
published April 11, 2008
now playing nationwide
off by taking a bad handoff from modern
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
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
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