Eugene Weekly : Movies : 4.10.08


George Clooney and the early NFL

LEATHERHEADS: Directed by George Clooney. Written by Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly. Cinematography, Newton Thomas Sigel. Music, Randy Newman. Starring George Clooney, Renée Zellweger, John Krasinski and Jonathan Pryce. Universal Pictures, 2008. PG-13. 114 minutes.

Say what you will about George Clooney as an actor: As a director, he clearly has balls. Vintage leather balls, in fact. While his friends make dark thrillers about heroin deals gone bad or slick casino heists set in Las Vegas, Clooney gives us Leatherheads, a throwback romantic comedy about football. Like all his films, Leatherheads positively throbs with conscience. That conscience, judging by Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, can be a restless, undomesticated place, but by Good Night, and Good Luck his moral curiosity found a backstory and with it an engaging theme: If journalists cease to demand an accountable government, chances are we aren’t going to have one. Clooney turns to the media again with Leatherheads, a bland, wayward comedy in which a newspaper reporter chooses to advance her career at the expense of a man’s reputation. In Leatherheads, set during the nascent years of professional football, Clooney reverses field thematically, this time examining what can happen when the media are unencumbered by the government.

Dodge Connelly (George Clooney), Carter Rutherford (John Krasinkski) and Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) in Leatherheads

The film’s pleasures, like its pitfalls, are evident from the start. The best that can be said of Leatherheads is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, offering a stylistically varied mix of sight gags (cows and dogs, for example) as well as slapstick physical comedy and some awkward fumblings at romance. I don’t use awkward by accident, for while Leatherheads isn’t corrosive, while it isn’t the thought-strangling fare we’re so often served these days, it’s also fitful, unfocused and coiled when it needs to spring. At times, I thought Leatherheads would work better as a radio play, so unsynchronized are some of the scenes with each other. Of course, Dodge Connelly (George Clooney) is no radio performer: While not in his prime, he’s the star of the professional footballers from Duluth, themselves the cream atop the small pail of milk that is the early NFL.

Part of the fun of Leatherheads is that Clooney’s facial tics, the visual stuttering that helped propel O Brother, Where Art Thou?, are used to great effect here, as are a number of supporting actors from the Coen brothers’ film. But these actors tend to be used for their faces alone, and even though they’re the right faces, they don’t contribute much. More central to the action is Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), an aspiring reporter from Chicago whose assignment is to bring down Duluth’s star player, Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski). Lexie is under the impression that Carter’s war record isn’t accurate. If she can prove it, she gets a promotion, even if — especially if — the scandal destroys the fragile football league in the process. This raises a number of problems, one of which is that Zellweger, for the first time I can remember, seems puffy, tired and defeated, lacking the zip it would take to combat this world of drinkers, brawlers and dunderheads. The other problem is Carter. We’re meant to think of him as a saint with a very, very big secret, but the secret, once revealed, is both irrelevant and implausible. I kept thinking, Just leave the kid alone already!

For a sports film, Leatherheads is far from inspirational, and for a comedy, it’s not terrifically funny. But neither does it try to do too much. There are some light moments, such as Randy Newman (who scores the film) playing the piano amidst a bar fight. The final game between Duluth and Chicago, with the old Chicago skyline in the background, is a visual treat, a brief but well-choreographed match with more mud than a presidential election cycle. But eventually, the game must end, and as the dialogue resumes, out goes the fun (and logic) of the film. No matter. I’d stopped waiting for the other cleat to drop about 90 minutes before.