Leatherheads (2008): Clooney’s Third Directing Effort–Misfire

George Clooney’s “Leatherheads,” his third directorial project, gets B for attempt and C for execution, though the picture’s mediocrity is more the fault of the writers, Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, than of his helming.

Changing pace, genre and period of his previous, more serious dramas (“Good Night and Good Luck,” “Michael Clayton,” both Oscar-nominated) the multi-talented Clooney directs and stars in “Leatherheads,” a sports comedy set in the 1920s that more than anything else pays homage to the great screwball romantic comedies of yesteryear, including “It Happened One Night,” “His Girl Friday,” “The Philadelphia Story,” and “Hail the Conquering Hero.”

While the movie is not badly directed by Clooney and is handsome to look at and pleasant to listen to, it suffers from Brantley and Reilly’s wildly uneven screenplay, which is neither light nor witty enough, seldom building any semblance of smooth and suave narrative. In fact, the plot is so messy or disorganized that the yarn could have rearranged the sequences in terms of acts and no many would notice.

Admittedly, countless writers and directors have tried in vain to recreate the charming and witty Hawks and Cukor comedies, among them Clooney’s friends and peers, Joel and Ethan Coen in “Hudsucker Proxy” and other films, who direct Clooney in another comedy later this year, “Burn After Reading.”

As an effort to combine a goofy-gritty sports feature with a pre-Depression era newspaper comedy, “Leatherheads” is an extremely old-fashioned film, marred by a draggy pacing and too many tonal changes. Half of the movie doesn’t work, but the few good sequences may put a pleasant smile on your face while watching what’s essentially a pastiche, in which the parts never gel into a more coherent or smart picture.

I have not doubts that while some critics might like Clooney’s comedy, theatrically, it faces an uphill battle domestically and particularly overseas, where American sports movies (comedies included) under-perform. Which means that “Leatherheads” better chances to be seen and appreciated are in ancillary markets, when it comes out on DVD. The movie also has merits in expanding Clooney’s reach and experience as a director, since his three films, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” and the new one are vastly different both thematically and stylistically.

Assuming his Cary Grant look, mood and goofiness (which he had not used since his divorce comedy, the Coen brothers’ “Intolerable Cruelty” opposite Catherine Zeta-Jones), Clooney has cast himself as the aging football player and charming rogue who recruits a young Princeton star (Jonathan Krasinski), hailed by the media as America’ brightest son and biggest WWI hero. He’s doing it in order to enhance the team’s poor image and future prospects.

When the buoyant and ambitious reporter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger, blonde and wearing sexy red dresses with deep cleavages and high heels), described as the newspaper’s very best, and not just for her shapely figure, chases the hot story about the new hero, the rivaling teammates go head to head for her attention.

Clooney plays Dodge Connolly, a charming but brash football hero who is determined to guide his team into packed and admiring stadiums. When the players lose their sponsor and the entire league faces demise and unemployment, Dodge convinces a young college football star to join his ranks. The captain hopes that his strategy would help the struggling sport finally capture the country’s attention, not realizing that attention may also signal commissioner and formal regulations.

Rising movie star, still known better for his TV work (“The Office”), Krasinski plays Carter Rutherford, America’s favorite son, a young, dashing and polite war hero, who claims to have single-handedly forced German soldiers to surrender in WWI. However, there’s a veil of mystery, and suspicion too, as to just about how he did it. Indeed, a cub journalist, Lexie is one of the journos, who suspects there are holes in Carter’s war testimony, and she sets out to expose them-with gusto and style. (Later in the film, through black-and-white flashbacks, we get a reconstruction of the real battle).

Predictably, the new game of pro-football becomes less free-wheeling and free-spirited sports, and Dodge must fight on two fronts, to keep his none-too-bright men together in the field and get the fantasy girl into his bed.

Clooney has said that his movie would show bloody bruise from the days when guys stepped out on the football field without pads to kick ass. And indeed the movie’s poster sends conflicting signals (by design) so that it will appeal to the boys as a gritty football movie, but at heart I think its just a fluffy romantic comedy with Zellweger as the desirable femme fatale at the center of a triangle, so that the girls will see the movie, too.

Mid-point, “Leatherheads” almost forgets that it’s about sports and unfolds as a classic romantic triangle, in which those destined to end up together have to go through a whole process of matching wits and wills.

At 46, Clooney still looks handsome, but he knows that his stardom days may be coming to an end soon, so he has built inside jokes into the yarn about aging, the way that John Wayne and Cary Grant did when they reached middle-aged. As an actor, Clooney has always been good at being playful and projecting self-deprecating humor.

Ultimately, more than anything else, “Leatherheads” feels like an nostalgic homage, a loving tribute to the early days of football, which were reportedly violent and normless (there were no regulations), the jazz era just before the crash of the stock market, when drinking in public was risky, and newspaper movies like “It Happened One Night,” “The Front Page,” and others, in which the reporter always asks for extension of his/her assignment to get the scoop right.

In this spirit, the fight in a beer pub in “Leatherheads” is meant as a tribute to all those hilarious barroom brawls that were a staple of Hollywood adventures and Westerns of the 1930s and 1940s, such as “The Spoilers.”

As a comedy, “Leatherheads” could have easily lost 15 to 20 minutes in the editing room without any damage to its integrity or continuity.

Cast

Dodge Connolly – George Clooney
Lexie Littleton – Renee Zellweger
Carter Rutherford – John Krasinski
CC Frazier – Jonathan Pryce
Commissioner – Peter Gerety
Harvey – Jack Thompson
Suds – Stephen Root
Coach Ferguson – Wayne Duvall
Big Gus – Keith Loneker
Stump – Robert Baker
Curly – Matt Bushell
Bakes – Malcolm Goodwin
Ralph – Tim Griffin
Hardleg – Tommy Hinkley
Zoom – Nick Paonessa
Mack Steiner – Max Casella
Mickey – Mike O’Malley
Belinda/Flapper – Heather Goldenhersh
Clerk – Marian Seldes

Credits

A Universal release of a Smokehouse Pictures/Casey Silver production.
Produced by Grant Heslov, Silver.
Executive producers, Barbara A. Hall, Jeffrey Silver, Bobby Newmyer, Sydney Pollack.
Directed by George Clooney.
Screenplay: Duncan Brantley, Rick Reilly.
Camera: Newton Thomas Sigel.
Editor: Stephen Mirrione.
Music: Randy Newman.
Production designer: Jim Bissell.
Art directors: Christa Munro, Scott T. Ritenour.
Set designers, Jeff B. Adams, Thomas J. Minton.
Set decorator: Jan Pascale.
Costume designer: Louise Frogley.
Sound: Edward Tise.
Supervising sound editors, Aaron Glascock, Curt Schulkey; re-recording mixers, Tom Fleischman, Bob Chefalas.
Visual effects supervisor: Thomas J. Smith.
Visual effects: CIS Hollywood.
Stunt coordinator: George Aguilar.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 112 Minutes.