Curious Ge­orge

Clooney’s charm makes up for the short­com­ings of this 1920s com­edy, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews -

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

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