Clooney’s charm makes up for the shortcomings of this 1920s comedy, writes Donald Clarke
LEATHERHEADS Directed by George Clooney. Starring George Clooney, Renée Zellweger, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Root, Ezra Buzzington, Jack Thompson PG cert, gen release, 114 min
THE government line on George Clooney argues that the universally adored actor and director – heck, even right-wing gun louts have trouble hating him – has been beamed forward from an earlier, more monochrome era. We are, it seems, not worthy of him.
The man Time magazine recently called “the last movie star” would, in a fairer universe, have the opportunity to share the screen with Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Arthur. Even Clark Gable didn’t do Clark Gable like George Clooney does Clark Gable. So the current orthodoxy goes.
It looks as if George has taken this babble at face value. His third film as director turns out to be an only modestly successful comic gambol set in the early days of professional American football. Leatherheads may be in colour, but it clearly thinks itself capable of aping the riffs and rhythms of the vintage screwball comedies. Why, the film even dares to feature a smart-talking female journalist called Dexie or Rexie (or something like that) and risks a scene set in the sleeping car of a speeding train.
Sadly, these allusions to great romps of the 1940s serve only to emphasise the uncertainty of the current film’s pacing. Clooney does, indeed, exhibit the right class of insolent civility for his aging football star, but Renée Zellweger can’t make sense of ace hack Lexie Littleton. (Ah, Lexie. That’s the name.) Whereas Arthur and Stanwyck slapped their quips on the counter like heavy boozers paying for the first highball, the Texan hamster appears frightened by the assertiveness of her own dialogue.
The surprising result – and I speak as somebody who loves American football as much as I love sewage sandwiches – is to persuade viewers that the film could do with a bit more gridiron action.
Leatherheads does, strange to say, have an interesting story to tell. In the 1920s, college football was a glamorous sport watched by huge crowds and covered by prestigious journalists. The professional game, meanwhile, was played in muddy fields for the entertainment of passing cattle. (Some have made a comparison between snooty Rugby Union and earthy Rugby League.) The film charts the point at which the balance began to shift.
John Krasinski, the likeable star of the American version of The Office, appears as Carter Rutherford, a charismatic player for one of the top college sides. Clooney, all creaking back and wincing brow, plays Dodge Connolly, the oldest player for the ramshackle Duluth Bulldogs, a professional team. Desperate to save his team-mates from redundancy, Dodge comes up with the wheeze of luring the college star towards the grubbier version of the game.
But trouble is brewing. The editor of a Chicago newspaper, having discovered that Rutherford is not the war hero he claims to be, sends his Girl Friday to follow the player around for a spell. Lexie, despite the supposed hardness of her nose, soon becomes emotionally entangled with both Dodge and Carter.
The film’s excellent opening act, which cheekily juxtaposes the glitz of Rutherford’s professional life with the blue-collar drudge of Connolly’s, promises an original entertainment with wide appeal. The closing sequences aren’t bad either. In between, however, we have to suffer a great deal of frantic mugging, an avalanche of clunky period detail, a clamour of contrived chase sequences and far too much ersatz ragtime from Randy Newman. Rather than finding new things to do with the language of screwball, Leatherheads ends up leaning towards a class of pastiche that might cause Mel Brooks to blush.
For all that, there is something about George Clooney that repels criticism. Remember how, in ER, he used to soften the blow of bad news simply by tipping his head to one side? He’s still doing that, and, darn it, it still works. Leatherheads isn’t all that good, but, thanks to its star’s ancient charm, it’s extremely hard to dislike.
Gridiron gang: George Clooney (centre) in Leatherheads