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Leatherheads   C

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: George Clooney
Writers: Duncan Brantley, Rick Reilly
Cast: George Clooney, Renée Zellweger, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce, Peter Gerety, Jack Thompson, Stephen Root, Wayne Duvall.

Review by Rob Vaux

It's hard criticizing an effort like Leatherheads because it so clearly adores its subject matter. Positing the early days of professional football as a screwball comedy of the Cary Grant/Irene Dunne variety requires passion both for the game itself and for that particular style of filmmaking -- a style which director/star George Clooney at first seems tailor made. Comparisons to Grant come very easily and previous work -- especially with the Coen brothers, who have an excellent sense of slapstick -- has put his comic proclivities to good use. He trips over things really well, and his expressive face can contort into the right combination of exasperation, surprise, and would-be cunning. His affinity for football shines through as well, hearkening back to the days when college ball was king and so-called "pros" thrashed futilely across empty fields littered with cow flop. Sadly, Leatherheads never strikes the right alchemical balance to bring it all together.

Simply put, everyone is trying just a little too hard. The cast and crew work overtime to make their shenanigans effortless, but enough sweat coats their brows to throw the timing off. Lose that and the entire endeavor collapses, regardless of how many machine-gun one-liners you pepper the scene with. Duncan Brantley's and Rick Reilly's script certainly has plenty of those to spare, tartly delivered by Clooney and leading lady Renée Zellweger in direct emulation of the stars of yesteryear. He plays the battered leader of the Duluth Bulldogs, a pro football team circa 1925 trying desperately to give their newborn league some traction. She plays a fast-talking reporter out to get a scoop on their newest star Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski). As the toast of Princeton and a bona fide war hero, Rutherford might just be the poster boy to put pro ball on the map, but Zellweger's Lexie Littleton smells a rat and her editor sends her to learn the real skinny about his ballyhooed service in the Rhine.

Clooney quickly centers the proceedings on an easy love triangle, as his Dodge Connelly competes with Rutherford over leadership of the team and both find themselves falling for the sassy blonde in their midst. At the same time, Leatherheads endeavors to evoke fond memories of football in a different era: full of guys with crew cuts named Stump and Curly, who played not for endorsement deals but because it beat working yourself to death in the coal mines. Clooney bends over backwards to capture every period detail, from the simplicity of the uniforms to the fact that the teams weren't divided into offense and defense (nobody got a break when the ball changed hands). He plays the games themselves for laughs -- with various wacky hijinks on every down -- but stresses an underlying fondness that renders the jokes warmhearted in the extreme. Even the dirty tricks are romanticized, as veterans talk wistfully about the banning of underhanded plays and how the game isn't as much fun without them. (The notion leaves a bit of a sour taste, but in this era of steroid-laden monstrosities, you can hardly blame Clooney for waxing lyrical about good honest cheating.)

For all the attention to authenticity, however, the on-field antics never mesh with the off-field romance. The film's pacing starts out well, but bogs down in the second half as the various plot threads bang against each other in search of resolution. Leatherheads has a bit of a ringer in actor Peter Gerety, who livens up a third-act altercation as the newly appointed commissioner of the game, but the remainder of the film searches futilely for the right tone. Homage veers into cliché at times, topped by the old saloon fight routine complete with a piano player (composer Randy Newman) tinkling away as beer bottles fly around him. (To quote a pair of Clooney's colleagues, "That gag's got whiskers on it.") The humor labors to click with the film's more heartfelt attempts at honoring the past, and while the dialogue holds plenty of zingers, they feel just a shade too calculated to strike home properly.

It's heartbreaking watching Leatherheads struggle through its self-made morass in an effort to take flight. Few films have as much love for their material as this one does. Even fewer possess Clooney's knowledge and appreciation of cinematic history, or work harder to remind us that good movies have been around for longer than most of us have been alive. He deserves credit for saluting a bygone era with such affection and for exploring a little-remembered corner of sports history with a sense of playfulness and fun. It's a pity that Leatherheads can't get by on good intentions alone, doomed in part by its own exhaustive efforts to entertain us. The results are overlong, over-mannered, and frustratingly incomplete: a well-meaning movie fatally dazzled by the very nostalgia it's drowning in.

Review published 04.04.2008.

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