A couple of days ago, I caught my son staring up admiringly at George Clooney during his appearance on Letterman and I turned to Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate and said, “That doesn’t make him gay, you know; that just makes him human.” And that’s most definitely the case with Mr. Clooney — he’s good looks, charisma, intelligence, and likably smug self-deprecation all wrapped up in a simmering package of old-school gravitas. If you don’t like George Clooney just a little bit, you’re just not human — if he’s not wetting panties, he whetting a thirst for something neat or on the rocks. And though he’s been in any number of underwhelming films (the Schiavoan Michael Clayton, most recently) he never fails to deliver. Even when he’s in a clunker (The Perfect Storm, Intolerable Cruelty), he’s still as easy to watch as he is on the eyes (save for Solaris, which was just painful). Leatherheads is another one of those films that doesn’t quite live up to his Royal Clooneyness, a movie where everyone lacks just a little because they’re forced to play John Oates and G.E. Smith to his Daryl Hall.
Indeed, I wondered walking into Leatherheads why no one bothered to make screwball comedies anymore. Walking out, I knew why: While George Clooney holds his own as a modern-day Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell Renee Zellwegger ain’t. Putting the gossipy notion that her face belongs in a pickle jar aside, Zellwegger isn’t a bad actress. In fact, given the current choice of talent available, I doubt you could find a high-profile actress better suited to the role. The problem is, ironically enough, that actresses of that mold, the Hawksian woman archetype — smart, slightly intimidating, sexy, sophisticated, and strong — just don’t exist in the studio system like they did in the 1930s through the ’60s. If Russell, Lauren Bacall, and Angie Dickinson were proto-feminists, where the hell are our modern feminists? Now, they’re all goddamn flowers that wilt at the slightest whiff of cologne (I speak of you, Rainbow Killer) and, outside of a few older actresses — Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton — there just aren’t a lot of actressin’ womenfolk who can hold their own standing next to Clooney, which makes Zellwegger’s Lexie Littleton, a journalist for the Chicago Tribune, a bit far-fetched, even if she can convincingly sell a few lines.
Meanwhile, John Krasinski — adorably harmless, wry, eye-rolling John Krasinski — isn’t exactly cut out for comedic foil, either: He makes for an impressive set of puppy dog eyes, but you don’t watch screwball comedies or football movies to see a guy whimper off into the corner and mug for hugs, which is essentially what Krasinski does here. I dig the guy, but his onscreen talents seem limited to Jim Halpert types.
Set in 1925, Krasinski plays Carter Rutherford, a football wunderkind from Princeton, the number one player in the nation, pitchman for razor blades and a soldier with a war-hero background that’s the stuff of legend. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it is: Legend. So, Lexie Littleton, hotshot reporter with a pageboy haircut and a nice set of gams, is called upon to flash her leg, investigate his background and “cook the goose,” for the Tribune.
Meanwhile, Dodge Connelly (Clooney), based on the real-life Johnny “Blood” McNally, is a grizzled, over-the-hill football veteran in an unstructured league with fewer fans than it has rules. When his team, the Duluth Bulldogs, goes broke, Connelly develops a plan to save the organization and, perhaps, professional football all together: Recruit the Princeton star and war hero to play for Duluth, drawing the massive crowds that Rutherford attracts in college football to the professional level.
And it works, too.
The conflict arises in the love story, which is where the dramatic tension peters out; Rutherford falls for Lexie and gives up the real account behind his war heroism, while Connelly also develops an affection for Lexie, which is reluctantly reciprocated (she is, after all, human), and then there’s a whole three-way relationship mess that predictably unspools itself toward shocking(!) revelations and the one big game. Hurrah! Along the way, there’s a lot of good stuff going on: A brilliant keystone cops sequence (that features Clooney in full-on O’ Brother Where Art Thou? kookiness), a good-natured bar brawl, a lot of fun football gimmickry, and a smashing Randy Newman ragtime score.
Unfortunately, Leatherheads ultimately fails not for what it is, but for what it isn’t: A legitimate screwball comedy on the level with the works of Howard Hawks or George Cukor. It’s an amiable, likable, swell comedy. And Clooney, as director, does an exemplary job with the 20s aesthetic, respectfully capturing the myths of football past on camera, as well as the feel of those old-school comedies combined with the breezy casualness of an Ocean’s film. And while he also does a fairly good imitation of screwball, that’s really all it is: An imitation. A movie good enough to remind you of better ones, but not good enough to compete with them, which — in the end — leaves you mostly with an overwhelming ache of nostalgia.
Still, I won’t lie: There’s enough Clooney to make it a worthwhile cinematic experience.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Leatherheads / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | April 4, 2008 | Comments ()