Dir: George Clooney. US. 2008. 113 mins.
Part screwball romance, part sports comedy, George Clooney's third film behind the camera, the period piece Leatherheads, goes back to the early days of American professional football. Loose-limbed, loquacious and exceedingly affable, the movie finally comes unglued in the final third, when forced to awkwardly resolve its tangled setups.
Clooney's considerable profile should give Leatherheads a solid opening weekend and domestic run. But despite his amiable public persona, the actor/director has a relatively spotty domestic commercial record with comedy (2003's Intolerable Cruelty pulled in $35m at home, $85m internationally). The Coen Brothers-directed comedy O Brother Where Art Thou, starring Clooney and set in the same timeframe, seems a good point of departure with its $71.8m gross worldwide ($26m of that from international receipts).
Leatherheads, like past Clooney projects, is partially another valentine to filmmaking of old, which throws further doubt over its commercial prospects. Though Good Night, And Good Luck grossed $50 million-plus worldwide, and was nominated for six Academy Awards, Clooney's most recent attempt at stylized Hollywood recreation (as an actor), 2006's The Good German, was a total washout with critics and audiences alike. International audiences also tend to be resistant to the charms of American football films and there Leatherheads seems destined to bea solid catalogue earner, for fans of the sport (the movie's DVD release will no doubt slot nicely with the autumnal debut of football) and the actor-director alike.
When his Duluth Bulldogs finish their latest tour broke and out of opponents to play, wily, charming owner-player Dodge Connolly (Clooney) tries to figure out a scheme to keep them going - and avoid having to find a real job. Dodge wants to woo wealthy investor C.C. Frazier (Jonathan Pryce) into the fold, and tries to recruit his latest business client Carter Rutherford (Krasinski), a Princeton student, football star and war hero who, legend has it, single-handedly forced an entire German squadron to surrender during service in World War I.
What Dodge doesn't originally know, but quickly finds out, is that hotshot reporter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger), ostensibly there for a fluff profile piece, has in fact been sent by her editor to craft an expose of Carter, whose war story they don't believe. As Lexie gets close to Carter, so does Dodge to Lexie. Powered by Carter's stardom, the team is revitalised, but for how long'
Leatherheads ' screenplay, an old piece penned in the early 1990s by sports magazine writers Rick Reilly and Duncan Brantley, and presumably tinkered with by Clooney and a number of uncredited script doctors, wallows, to largely winning effect early on, in detail and dialogue. Clooney is amiably mocked as a 'middle-aged boy wonder,' and the actor-director and Zellweger share a number of enjoyable, rapid-fire exchanges, their just-concealed attraction masked by surface irritation.
But Leatherheads' third act is about as muddy as the action on the field. There are no sharp angles here, no clear delineation of motives, particularly concerning Dodge's feelings about Carter, whom he knows Lexie is angling to take down - but whom he needs for his own financial survival. That might be fine if Leatherheads made a few different narrative choices, and wholeheartedly embraced its existence as a ramshackle character piece. The problem is that the film also tries to capture the transitional phase of a sport moving from an independent and inherently irresponsible endeavour to a corporate-backed game with rules and regulations.
And for a movie so invested in whimsy and tone, to finally end with a conventional 'big game' feels disingenuous at best, and even more tacked on given the lack of concrete stakes tied to the outcome.
If the story winds down in disappointing fashion, the role of Dodge is never less than a perfect fit for Clooney, who pulls out his Cheshire cat grin to twinkly, mischievous effect. Yet Clooney the director also does quite right by his other actors, drastically reducing, if not entirely eliminating, Zellweger's tendency to squint, and guiding Krasinski (the small screen American version of The Office) through his best big screen role and performance to date.
Technically, Leatherheads is Clooney's most ambitious film thus far behind the camera, and he and his collaborators ably deliver on all counts. There's a warmth to the cinematography of Newton Thomas Sigel (Three Kings, X-Men) and a smart, simple, inviting sense of detail to Jim Bissell's production design. Randy Newman's horn-waggling, tin-pan alley score, meanwhile, serves as optimistic, ironic counterpoint to the hard-knock economic realities so many of the Duluth footballers face.
Casey Silver Productions
Duncan Brantley & Rick Reilly
Director of photography
Newton Thomas Sigel