Friday, April 04, 2008

"Leatherheads" -- * * *

George Clooney's third directorial effort, "Leatherheads," may be disappointing in the respect that it's his first one that doesn't touch greatness, but it's still a deeply enjoyable throwback to the screwball comedies of the 1930s (despite being set in the 1920s). Though set in the early days of professional football, its appeal to those who usually flock to sports movies is questionable considering gridiron action is only a third of what makes up the movie. But with a well-constructed sub-plot involving fake-or-real heroics, and a heavy emphasis on romance balancing out the guy-on-guy sports stuff, the movie won't do much to punctuate the beliefs of those of us who think Clooney can do no wrong. With a mediocre script (written by Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, rumored to be punched up by Clooney) that's been circulating in the industry for well over a decade, it's ultimately the direction and Clooney in all-out charming mode that make this extremely old-fashioned film into something worthy of one's time and money.

Taking place in 1925, when pro football still took a significant backseat to college football in terms of fans and credibility, the movie's central character is Dodge Connelly (Clooney), longtime player and makeshit-mentor/coach for the Duluth Bulldogs, disheartened by the league's seemingly inevitable collapse and his players having to return to their working-class jobs. Desperate, Dodge gets the bright idea to lure over popular, irritatingly modest college player Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski), idolized as a hero of the Great War and whose faced is plastered all over billboards, to the Bulldogs. Though the recruitment works, resulting in increased attendance and profits, soon Chicago Tribune reporter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger) is writing an investigative piece on Bullet, planning on exposing him as a fraud and his war record as a fake. As rules are just starting to rear their head in the sport, Lexie trades verbal blows with Dodge, and in the process falls simultaneously for him and Carter. Jonathan Pryce also gets more featured screentime than he's seen in a while as Carter's business manager, the first of the money-grubbing super agents in the sports industry.

Clooney's embrace of a 1930s style of screwball comedy (also currently utilized in "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day") turns out to be the right decision for the material. Starting with the old-timey Universal Pictures logo, and punctuated by lots of jazz and old-standards, there's very little present to take us out of the classic feel (more on her later). While the style of filmmaking and writing is intended to evoke a cinematic style and not feel "real," Clooney keeps it from ever feeling phony or too self-referential, a problem many had with "The Good German."As if the characters' names weren't a tipoff (how can you not dig a movie whose leads are named Dodge Connelly and Lexie Littleton?), there's some delightful screwball staples absent from most modern cinema, like a sequence involving police uniforms and a suicide jumper, and an classically cartoonish barroom brawl, replete with the unphased piano player.

There's some funny business in "Leatherheads," but it's funny in the way movies of this style were decades ago. No one is going to be raving to you about how hysterical it is; it's a gentler style of 'smile' or 'occasional chuckle' type humor. Some of the jokes that made me smile were intentionally old-fashioned/crusty (I doubt Clooney himself included a 'accidentally cursing into the microphone' running gag because he thought it was fresh and hilarious). There's some really broad stuff here-- not the sort of thing you usually associate Clooney with-- and for the most part, it works. There's slapstick abound; people fall down, get hit by things, and more of the like, and I actually found it funny (a sleeve-on-fire gag works particularly well). But there's also quite a bit of clever dialogue here, most notably the back-and-forth witty repartee between Dodge and Lexie. Their dialogue has a certain rhythm to it that feels like exactly what the filmmakers were shooting for with the project's inception.

Quite predictably, Clooney's performance is aces and Zellweger's the noticeable false note here. As he's shown in both "O Brother, Where Art Thou" and "Intolerable Cruelty," him and screwball comedy fit together naturally, and he's truly a master of the double take. Perhaps it has something to do with him directing himself, but he always knows exactly what the tone is supposed to be and meshes seamlessly with the genre. He never fails to make me chortle or smile at lines or actions that wouldn't be particularly funny performed by anyone else, or delivering good ones ("You're only as young as the woman you feel") in a manner that makes them even better. However, I will say the film goes a little bit overboard with denegrating his well-regarded handsomeness. He's repeatedly called "old man" and "grandpa," and this is the second movie in a row (after "Michael Clayton") where someone tells his character that they "look like hell." Come on, he's George Clooney; he never looks like hell.

Krasinski, as "The Bullet," shines in one or two spots (most memorably during a black-and-white flashback to what actually happened during his encounter with the Germans), but mostly just comes off as bland in a role that doesn't offer him very much to play. This and "License to Wed" make clear that, while he may be hilarious on "The Office," he's not the sort who can necessarily thrive without the right material.

As for Zellweger, I don't know quite where to begin. I've obviously made no secret of my disdain for her performances in the last five years or so, but I've always felt she was capable of a comeback with the right project. Her insincerity, level of mannered affectation and just grating sensibilities are seemingly adopted traits that weren't always prevalent; she's been delightful before, particularly in her comedic roles. I held out especial hope for her role/performance in this film since (a) I always hope Clooney's goodness will rub off on people, and (b) the part bears a remarkable similarity to her Barbara Novak in "Down with Love," which is one of the movies I really like her in. But I'm sorry to say, as a fast-talking gal in the vein of Rosalind Russell, she's all wrong. While not exactly terrible, I never bought her as living in this time period. She just doesn't seamlessly fit in with this style of movie and has trouble believably working her pursed-up mouth around the dialogue (her enunciation of the phrase "my bosoms" feels particularly forced and vaguely off-putting).

Given the heavy advertising on sports channels, and the poster featuring nothing but our male cast members scowling in football garb, it must be pointed out that while "Leatherheads" is a football movie, that's only about a third of what it is. Running about an hour and 50 minutes, about a third of the running time involves the romantic shaningans, and the other third involves the Krasinski-Zellweger "hero or not" material. Unlike some other reviewers out there, I didn't find these three elements to be disparate or tonally inconsistent, and I think they all pretty much work. However, I definitely did see/hear every bulky, baseball-cap wearing guy at my screening getting restless during almost all of the non-Football stuff. So, I'm jus' sayin': knuckle-dragging jocks, consider yourself warned.

If anything, "Leatherheads" shows that Clooney has superb range as a director. It's curious that his films' time frames seem to go down 25 years or so with each new effort, but other than that odd little coincidence, he's succeeding as directly wildly divergent films each time out. This is definitely his most mainstream film so far, but it's also something completely different than anything he did within "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" or "Good Night, and Good Luck." If I didn't know better, I'd have assumed they were made by three different filmmakers. It's worth noting that this is the first of the three films that he's taken the starring role in (probably studio-mandated, due to budget size), but that doesn't seem to have distracted him from a infusing his directing unique sense of style and discipline. Clooney's jokingly said that he steals little things from every director he's worked with, and here, he's clearly been influenced by the Coen Brothers wor on "O Brother, Where Art Thou" and "The Hudsucker Proxy;" hell, I even noticed a a handful of character actors Clooney co-starred with in "O Brother" (including Stephen Root, in another scene-stealing performance as a drunken sports writer).

I'm not quite sure if the chick-flick and guy-flick elements on display here are going to draw in both crowds or cancel them both out, but it'd be a shame if it was the latter. "Leatherheads" is absolutely not a deep film or one that's really going to stick with you, but it's an incredibly satisfying, entertaining flick opening in the cinematic wasteland known as the first couple months of the year. It's plainly evident why this was bumped from an Awards-friendly release date of December to early-April-- it's just a light, fun entertainment that won't blow anyone's hat off-- but with a little bit to offer everyone, it's a tough Spring cocktail to resist.


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