What is it about the good old days of classic screwball comedies that lure proven, otherwise competent directors? Do they really think they can recapture the magic of Capra and Hawks? Do they really think they can rekindle the natural snap, sizzle and spark between stars like Gable and Lombard or Hepburn and Grant?
Clooney (center) in ‘Leatherheads’
It takes more than a wardrobe raid on period costumes — it takes a bulletproof script that is witty, fresh and alive. It takes stars who have charisma that bubbles off the screen and into the theater, fully engaging and charming the audience to the point of giddiness.
Admittedly, George Clooney is one of a handful of contemporary actors who possess that old-fashioned movie star charisma. It was a good decision, therefore, that he cast himself in Leatherheads, a film he also directs. Clooney was also smart to cast Renee Zellweger as his sparring partner in this semi-comedy about the formative days of professional football. The pair have so much chemistry, you could package them as a set with a few test tubes and sell it to kids for Christmas.
Clooney imbues Leatherheads with a dapper, sepia-toned period aesthetic. Set in 1925, the movie romanticizes the early days of pro football, as things like rulebooks, football commissioners, and throngs of fans turn the game from a national joke into a pastime that will one day rival baseball as the country’s number one sport. Leatherheads trades on the notion that a single celebrity engine — a young player who is also a celebrated World War I hero — is able to transform the game from something played in cow pastures before a dozen or so listless locals into a stadium-worthy event pulling in upwards of 40,000 spectators per game.
But what Leatherheads lacks is a script worth all the obvious effort invested in it. It’s not just a bit of a mess, it’s a huge mess, sloppy and uncertain of its aim. Is it a romance? Is it a screwball comedy? Is it a lesson in the ethics of public relations?
Turns out, it’s mostly the latter, with a third act that plunges the film, which is pretty much light and frothy for the first hour or so, into a sludge of seriousness. Clooney, whose previous directorial efforts included the odd yet compelling Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and the positively stunning Good Night and Good Luck, can’t get a handle on what’s required to make Leatherheads work, so he throws in the towel midway through. The narrative plays out with all the frivolity of a death march. By the time we get to the climactic game, set in a mud-drenched field, we could hardly care how things turn out. We’re completely drained by the boredom and the clichÃ© of everything that preceded it.
As Dodge Connelly, the aging quarterback for the Duluth Bulldogs, Clooney attempts to carry the film. It eventually weighs him down and his performance turns ashen and grim. His best scenes are early on with Zellweger, who plays a wise-cracking reporter for the Chicago Tribune, an ambitious gal intent on dredging up scandal surrounding certified war hero and Bulldog star Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski). She’s the very definition of the term ”broad,” and Zellweger, sporting jungle red lipstick and a soft blond bob, plays her with such alertness, such snap, crackle and pop, you’d swear she’s channeling Rosalind Russell from His Girl Friday. But Clooney and Zellweger eventually run out of steam, around the same time that writers Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly run out of things for them to get steamed about.
The wild card here is Krasinski, who is so terrific on NBC’s The Office and whose All-American huskiness makes him the perfect choice for the part of Rutherford. Unfortunately, the young actor is given nothing to work with — and he isn’t experienced enough to spin even brass from thin air. He’s like a piece of lead inserted into the center of the picture. As the storyline turns from spry to serious, Krasinski inadvertently drags the picture down to a place from which even a good, old-fashioned pigskin-tossing frolic in the mud can’t help it recover.