Continuing his quest to become the Cary Grant of his time, George Clooney directs and stars in a quaint throwback to the screwball comedies of the golden age of cinema, the aptly named Leatherheads. It’s obvious by now, that the director has an affinity for classic cinema (just watch 2005’s Good Night and Good Luck and 2006’s The Good German if you’re not already convinced). Here he chooses as his subject the dawning of what is undoubtedly the most popular sport in this country: professional football.
Set in 1925, we learn that college football is a sensation of the time and pro football is struggling to draw a crowd. We see Princeton hotshot Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford being interviewed after a game about playing his final college season and what he plans to do next. After a reporter suggest that he can always go pro, Rutherford bursts into laughter. Clooney, starring alongside Jon Krasinski and Renee Zwellweger, plays “Dodge” Connelly, team captain of professional football team Duluth Bulldogs. The program has gone bankrupt and just when it appears that Connelly’s playing days are over, he convinces the well-known star and war hero Rutherford to go pro and play for Duluth, which starts an instant shockwave of fans and popularity. Meanwhile, attractive Chicago Tribune reporter Lexie Littleton (Zwellweger) has the scoop on a major story, one that can prove that Rutherford’s heroics in WWI are counterfeit, thus severely damaging his reputation.
As a screwball comedy, Leatherheads falls short. It’s more ‘eh’ funny than ‘ha-ha’ funny. There are fist fight scenes that should be better drawn out and humorous than they actually are. Furthermore, the pretty boy faces of Clooney and Krasiniski are completely intact without a scratch on them even after they’ve exchanged dozens of blows. There’s also a scene where an illegal bar is raided by police and Connelly and Littleton happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Their antics to get out of the situation are poorly written by Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly and amateurishly handled by Clooney. Ultimately, the only things that give Leatherheads a 1930s/40s pulse is the ebullient jazz music and the fastidious period detail. Seeing these actors in tattered football uniforms and leather helmet straps is the most amusing thing about the movie.
Surprisingly, the film works better as a character drama, even though that’s not how it’s supposed to work. The triangle between Connelly, Littleton, and Rutherford is filled with love, envy, betrayal, and hurt pride and it is all handled surprisingly well. Although Krasinski’s comedic talent is almost entirely pent-up throughout, he actually shows some range and depth as his character is feeling the pressure of a lie potentially ruining his reputation. Clooney and Zwellweger are a perfect fit for their roles and the way they play off one another when they first meet is reminiscent of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Zwellweger in particular dazzles on the screen.
Leatherheads might have been passable if not for the muddy mess (and I mean that quite literally) of an ending. The climatic game that is supposed to be an offensive shootout is just a knock em’ sock em’ 3-0 dogfight. I guess Clooney felt that stooping to a sports cliched ending was unacceptable, but that would have been better than going with a final play that makes absolutely no sense at all. What happens is confusing, muddled and the film doesn’t go back to explain anything, forcing the viewers themselves to make heads or tails of what they just saw. Clooney’s intentions are noble but some of his choices are nearly inscrutable.
Ultimately, Leatherheads is a mixed bag of a movie; not nearly as funny as you expect it to be but also dramatically rewarding. The final downfall of the film is the ending, which to say it leaves you disappointed would be an understatement. So far, Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck is his only major throwback success so far. The Good German was more of a contemporary drama shot in black-and-white than anything else, or at least the dialogue was written that way. This is the first of his odes to classic cinema not to be shot in black-and-white and understandably so. In spite of that, Leatherheads still manages to capture the spirit a little bit better, but is a minefield of missed opportunities.