George Clooney is something of a Hollywood oddity. Though clearly a star of the highest megawattage (Time went so far as to recently proclaim him “The Last Movie Star”), he’s also a bit of a box office flop. Only five of his movies have grossed over $100 million domestically (Mel Gibson has twice as many; Tom Cruise, three times), and, of those, four--Batman and Robin and the Ocean’s trilogy--featured co-stars with more proven box-office appeal. If you’re someone like me, Clooney stands out as an actor who’s chosen roles exceptionally well (Michael Clayton, Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck, Three Kings, the marvelous Out of Sight), and whose failures (Solaris, The Good German, Intolerable Cruelty) are often interesting ones. If, by contrast, you’re the head of a studio, he stands out as a guy who can’t really open a movie.
His new picture, the period sports farce Leatherheads, is not going to change any of this. Quirky, distinctly low-key, and amiably (if not quite successfully) evoking the screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s, it’s the kind of movie that will further endear Clooney to movie critics--even, I suspect, those who review the film negatively--but will probably leave studio bosses in the red.
Clooney, who also directed, stars as Dodge Connelly, a professional football player in 1925--which is to say, a man with no real profession at all. He and his fellow Duluth Bulldogs wander around the Midwest by train, playing good-natured, rules-phobic games on high school fields--when, that is, they can find another team to play at all. Football squads are going bankrupt left and right, and Dodge’s Bulldogs soon follow suit. But after an unsuccessful attempt to go legit (job interviewer: “Skills?”; Dodge: “How do you mean?”), he has a revelation: Even as the “pros” struggle to lure a couple dozen spectators, dashing (in both senses of the word) Princeton star Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) routinely draws tens of thousands to his school’s games. So Dodge cajoles Carter, who is a decorated war hero in the bargain, into joining the Bulldogs. As with all screwballs, of course, there must be a fetching female to spar with, and she soon emerges in the person of Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), a reporter who’s gotten a tip that Carter’s war record may not be quite as heroic as advertised.
The corners of its romantic triangle thus affixed, the movie proceeds likeably enough. Dodge and Carter compete as teammates on the field and as rivals for Lexie’s heart off it. The Bulldogs play, and win, before exponentially multiplying crowds. But success comes at a cost, and football gradually becomes domesticated, with team curfews added and colorful cheats such as the “crusty bob” and “chasing the cat’s tail” subtracted. By bringing Carter to Duluth, old-school Dodge has essentially invited his own obsolescence.
The performances are smooth, if not particularly memorable. Clooney has been compared to Cary Grant with numbing regularity, but nowhere is the comparison more apt than when it comes to his occasional forays into slapstick: The broad double takes, wild grins, and deep brow furrowings all seem borrowed directly from the repertoire of the erstwhile Archibald Leach. (Sometimes it’s wiser to imitate than innovate.) Zellweger has her patter down, especially in her scenes with Clooney, but there’s no real heat behind the exchanges. Instead of arguing as an alternative to sex, they’re just, well, arguing. Krasinski brings to the proceedings a friendly, yet slightly melancholy charm that will be familiar to his fans from “The Office.”
Discussion of Clooney as a director (this is his third time behind the lens) typically focuses on the influence of his friend and frequent collaborator Steven Soderbergh. Leatherheads, though, serves as a reminder that Clooney has also starred in two Coen brothers comedies (with another on the way), and was evidently taking notes. The genial grotesques, amplified accents, period soundtrack (terrific, by the way), and vaguely dada sensibility are all there, as are a couple of Coen veterans (Stephen Root, Wayne Duvall) and a line borrowed nearly verbatim from Miller’s Crossing (“You know the mayor?” “I should, I voted for him five times in the last election”). But Clooney doesn’t push the aesthetics of the film quite so far into hermetic beauty as the Coens, and he presents his characters with less distance and greater affection.
The result is a pleasant cinematic mix but not a terribly sustaining one, and once the novelty of the before-football-was-football set-up wears off, perhaps halfway through, the subsequent plot convolutions aren’t sharp or unexpected enough to maintain any real momentum. The awkward love triangle, the bout after bout of comic fisticuffs, the Big Game that pits former teammates against one another--they’re all too familiar.
That’s the underlying problem, really, with Leatherheads as a whole. Though its nominal subject is a bygone era of sports, it’s really about a bygone era of filmmaking. And Clooney’s admiration for the old screwballs of Capra, Cukor, and Hawks is a little too self-conscious and imitative, with gag after gag played not merely for laughs, but for nostalgia. It’s a difficult trick to be to be both wistful and hilarious. By opting more often than not for the former, Leatherheads forfeits the zany bite of its forbears and abandons the very legacy it celebrates.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.