Director: George Clooney
Starring: George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce
Running Time: 114 min.
*** (out of ****)
Two steps forward, one step back. That seems to be the best way to describe the movie career of George Clooney. Last year he delivered what I thought was thus far his only significant contribution to cinema with his Oscar nominated role in Michael Clayton, a film that just gets better in my mind the more I think about it. If Daniel Day-Lewis weren’t in the race he would’ve won and even said so himself. He was right though.
When his latest directorial effort, the screwball comedy, Leatherheads, focusing on the infancy of pro football in the 1920’s, bowed to the sound of one hand clapping this past spring, the mainstream media predictably reacted to its failure as if it were the arrival of the apocalypse. They all but took it personally. But the fact is Clooney has always been, to put it nicely, overvalued as an actor. The man anointed not too long ago by Time Magazine as “The Last Movie Star” has had more misses than hits and has struggled in his film choices to live up to the reputation his name carries. Even his first two outings behind the camera, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck were solid, if unremarkable endeavors and I pretty much went in to Leatherheads expecting to hate it.
Much to my surprise, the film is a really admirable attempt to resurrect a long dormant genre and while the results it yields are mixed, they’re mostly positive. More surprisingly, Clooney’s direction is excellent and his performance even better. Given the film’s paper-thin premise, he takes this further than it can reasonably go, despite working with a rather formulaic script. This is one of those movies that breezes along reasonably for close to 2 hours and holds your interest but won’t to do a whole lot more than that. But it’s a good effort and Clooney should be commended for using his stroke to get something made that’s completely different from what’s usually out there. Hollywood throwback films may be becoming his specialty but it’s a good fit for him. It isn’t hard to see how something this retro flopped, but it’s also easy to understand how some may enjoy it as a fresh alternative.
Clooney is aging professional football player Dodge Connelly, captain of the struggling Duluth Bulldogs in the 1920’s. In a last ditch effort to save the team and the unsuccessful football league in general, Dodge entices sports promoter C.C. Frazier (Jonathan Pryce) with the idea of recruiting college football star and decorated war hero Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford (John Krasinski). It turns out to be a wise move as Carter’s All-American good looks, stories of war heroism and unparallel speed on the field make him a fan favorite who brings respect and prestige to the Bulldogs. Pro football, previously a sport frowned upon and laughed at is now filling bleachers and making front-page headlines thanks to Carter. Along for the ride is Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger), a journalist who’s been hired to uncover the real truth behind his supposed World War II exploits and soon finds herself torn between her feelings for him and Dodge as both battle to win her affections.
The best thing this film has going for it is the presence of Clooney, both as director and lead. He gives a charming, self-deprecating performance and he and Zellweger engage in some real first class Tracy/Hepburn style verbal jousting. This kind of quick-witted dialogue is very difficult to pull off effectively and while I wasn’t rolling on the floor laughing, I did have a smile on my face most of the way and giggled at most of the punch lines, more than a few hammered home with a priceless Clooney facial expression. His timing was excellent, making me wonder why he doesn’t do more comedies, although he'd find few roles that are as up his alley as this. More jokes work than don’t, which is no small feat given the kind of screwball comic arena they’re working in.
This is also the first time I can remember where I was actually laughing with Clooney rather than at him and he seemed in on the joke. Of course, he’s too old for the role but that’s the whole point of the story and to his credit Clooney makes many jokes poking fun at not only his age, but also his reputation as a womanizer. If anything, he almost goes too far as I began to lose count of how many times his character was referred to as an “old man.” On paper this project would look to be yet another self-indulgent vanity project for the star (not unlike Ocean’s 13) but he instead proves he wasn’t afraid to make a fool of himself, and the film is all the better for it.
I’ve all but given up trying to figure out what’s happened to Renee Zellweger’s career (not to mention her physical appearance) a while ago. Its so perplexing books could probably be written on the topic but she really ends up delivering here. It's possible another actress could have been a better fit for Lexie Littleton and maybe even given a better performance, but there’s no way they would have shared the same spunky chemistry with Clooney that she does. She’s still got it and if she ever decided to get her act together it’s possible for her to be a force again as an actress, if she wants it. After a dreadful outing in last year’s License To Wed, John Krasinki is given a much more to work with and fans of his work on the small screen will be pleased to discover some of his likeability carries over this time. Clooney gets a lot out of him and the three actors work seamlessly together.
When the film reached it's end and I sat down to write the review I was ready to bash it. Only I realized there really isn’t anything to bash. You wouldn’t miss a thing if you skipped out but for what it’s trying to do it doesn’t make too many missteps. Moreover, this isn’t just a group of modern-day actors shamelessly attempting to recreate a bygone era. It’s clear right away from that old-fashioned Universal logo and credit sequence that Clooney came to play.
Besides being beautifully shot, the movie feels like it was made in the 1940’s and directed by someone with more on his mind than just lovingly paying homage. It’s the real deal and if we were giving points for authenticity this would score very high marks across the board. Sports Illustrated columnists Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly (with uncredited help from Clooney) wrote the script loosely based on the career of Johnny “Blood” McNally, an NFL hall of famer who helped save the league in the 1920’s and provided their inspiration for the Dodge character. It feels like a true story and I’m guessing Clooney’s writing contributions were large, given how much of a disaster this could have turned out to be.
It contains some interesting ideas like football’s evolution from sport into corporate-run business and the growing influence of the media in shaping our perception of heroes, but the film is too light and fluffy to dig deeply into those issues. This isn’t thought provoking stuff and it won’t give you a new appreciation for the time period, but that’s fine considering the light, fluffy tone. Clooney stages the actual football scenes well and it definitely has one of the muddiest finales you’ve seen in a film recently. There’s also a clever trick in the big game that I can pretty much guarantee can’t be pulled off in Madden NFL ’09.
Believe me I really tried to dislike the film but just couldn’t, despite the fact that there’s a reason these movies aren’t made anymore and a lot of the old-fashioned screwball humor will fly over people’s heads. I’m not a fan of that kind of comedy in general nor the films this is paying homage to, but can appreciate the work that was put into its authenticity. It does feel like he’s paying an affectionate tribute rather than shoving something we don’t want down our throats and his intentions seem pure, as much as it pains me to admit it. I’ll leave up to you to decide whether we need to be “educated” on these kinds of films (or what it says about us that we might) but the important thing was that I didn’t feel like I was getting a cinematic history lesson. It was fun. I definitely don’t long for the good ‘ol days when theses types of movies were playing on screens across country, but found it to be a fun diversion for a one-time experience. This isn’t for everyone and those involved in the making of it probably didn't care, which you have to respect.
Clooney has been endlessly (and somewhat nauseatingly) compared to screen icons like Carey Grant and Clark Gable but with this and Michael Clayton he’s finally started to show some signs that there may actually be a little something to that. For the first time in a while I’m actually not groaning and rolling my eyes back into my head at just the announcement of his latest project. This was the perfect part for him and a promising sign he’s starting to make more interesting choices as an actor and filmmaker, choices that actually play on his strengths. With his first three directorial efforts he’s shown promise as a filmmaker and avoided most of the self-indulgent pitfalls that have trapped other actors who direct. He’s growing on me…a little. While it would be easy to write off Leatherheads as just another middling Clooney effort, it contains too much ingenuity and heart to be considered anything less than a minor creative success.