2008, PG-13, 114 min. Directed by George Clooney. Starring George Clooney, Renée Zellweger, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Root.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., April 4, 2008
You can’t read one of Clooney’s endless People profiles without hearing the Cary Grant comparison, but here, he’s all Gable – same rakishness and stubble and tanned-leather basso profundo. Nearing 50, he’s still almost improbably puckish, but the picture – his third directorial effort – isn’t quite as fleet. Set in the 1920s, when the nation was still recovering from the Great War, Leatherheads charts, with what I presume is very little actual historical accuracy, the awkward birth of professional football. Clooney’s Dodge Connelly leads the rough-and-tumble Duluth Bulldogs, who break all the rules, but no bother – the limping-along pro league never had any rules to begin with. When the Bulldogs turn cash-poor and fan-deficient, Connelly cooks up a plan to save the team: enlist the services of war hero and Princeton star quarterback Carter “the Bullet” Rutherford (The Office’s Krasinski). Connelly’ll have to get in line, though – Chicago Tribune reporter Lexie Littleton (Zellweger, in a regrettable weave) is in hot pursuit of the Bullet, too, on a tip that the boy wonder maybe fibbed some on his war record. And there you have the makings of a crackerjack love triangle, with each leg entirely game – and faithful, too, to the period charms of lipsticked cigarettes and speakeasy brawls. (Krasinski, especially, with his wide, eager face and sweet, dumb-lug grin, feels like the happy accident of some tear in the time-space continuum.) Leatherheads comes practically gift-wrapped in goodwill – it’s a celebration of an American pastime (if not the American pastime) and a loving nod to the screwballs of yore. The film is appropriately scored, well-acted, and possessing of a handful of truly transportive moments. It's awfully agreeable – so why doesn’t it entirely work? I think it’s a question of comic timing. This kind of backward-glancing, even ga-ga-ing, material begs for barmy, and barmy begs for no brakes, but Leatherheads takes a full half-hour of stops and starts to find its footing. Even then, it skips from fizzy water to flat tap from scene to scene. In spirit, it’s right-on – knowing but never ironic – but in execution, Leatherheads is less sure. And when you set a scene in the rattling cage of a train-car sleeper – a tip of the hat to Sturges, Wilder, and Big Al Hitchcock – you’re only setting yourself up for failure.