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Leatherheads: There Will Be Mud 

Clooney tackles preglory gridiron

Wednesday, Apr 2 2008
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When Time recently featured George Clooney on its cover accompanied by the headline “The Last Movie Star” — note not even a question mark at the end — you didn’t have to read the article to know where it was coming from. After all, stars of the postpubescent variety are an increasingly rare commodity these days, whereas Clooney, in just about everything he has done since he checked out of ER, seems a supernova of effortless, old-Hollywood élan. Consider the list: Out of Sight; Three Kings; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Michael Clayton; the small-screen remake of Fail-Safe; and the big-screen revival of the Ocean’s franchise. They are nearly all throwbacks of one sort or another — period films, if not literally, then in spirit (particularly that of the New American Cinema of the 1970s). In addition to which, Clooney has directed two films, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck, set in the world of live television in the 1950s and ’60s.

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Onscreen and off, Clooney is like a holdover from a time — which, admittedly, may only have ever existed in the movies — when men were dapper, witty gentlemen who knew how to dress, how to charm the pants off a lady, and how to throw a punch if the occasion called for it. All of which makes Clooney’s third film as a director, Leatherheads, sound almost too good to be true: a screwball comedy set in the 1920s, with Clooney as a scrappy hustler trying to put a respectable face on the then-déclassé sport of professional football. And the opening scenes of Leatherheads are full of promise, as the vintage Universal Pictures logo gives way to a crowd of period extras cheering on Princeton college-football phenom Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford (The Office star John Krasinski) as he scores another home-field win, all to the tune of composer Randy Newman’s jaunty, ragtime-flavored score. In fact, for the two hours it takes to watch it, Leatherheads is rarely less than very promising ­— and also rarely more.

The Leatherheads screenplay, which was written by Sports Illustrated journalists Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly and given an uncredited polish by Clooney, offers a minor-key variation on that enduring folk wisdom gleaned from Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero and John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance — namely that, on the football field or the battlefield, America loves a good hero, regardless of whether his heroism is genuine or illusory. Here, the self-made (or, rather, media-made) hero is Rutherford, who took time off from school to fight in World War I, where he is said to have single-handedly forced the surrender of an entire company of German soldiers. (Indeed he did — just not quite in the way it sounds.) That faint whiff of exaggeration is enough for the Chicago Tribune to put its ace female reporter, Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) on Rutherford’s case, under the guise of writing a sycophantic puff piece. It’s thus that Carter and Lexie come to cross paths with one Dodge Connelly (Clooney), the down-on-his-luck captain of a nearly bankrupt pro-football team, the Duluth Bulldogs. Where Carter regularly takes to the lush Princeton field before a few thousand adoring college-football fans, Dodge and his ragtag band of pro-football lost boys play on muddied, makeshift fields before crowds of a few ... well, just a few. And Dodge, whose eyes twinkle with entrepreneurial invention, has an idea about how he can help Carter forestall a dreary law-school education while Carter helps him to save his pigskin. Welcome to the beginnings of the college draft system.

It’s an appealing screwball premise, and there’s little question that Clooney has done his homework. He’s decked out Leatherheads with fast-talking ink-slingers who seem to have walked right out of The Front Page, a train that might have pulled out of Twentieth Century station, and a battle-of-the-sexes bedroom scene borrowed from It Happened One Night. He’s also cast actors who play well in period mode — chiefly Zellweger (who gave one of her best performances as a 1930s schoolteacher in The Whole Wide World, and who was one of the few believably 19th-century elements in Cold Mountain), but also Krasinski, who has the broad face and aw-shucks modesty of a cannier-than-he-looks Midwestern rube. (If anyone ever sets out to remake Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, Krasinski might be the ideal Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes.) And the dialogue is littered with the kinds of rat-a-tat rejoinders that were probably a big part of what made Clooney want to make the movie in the first place. “It’s too bad we know each other so well; we might have gotten along,” he tells Zellweger upon their characters’ first meet-cute. “You’re only as young as the one you feel,” he quips later, when she questions him about the barely legal debutante on his arm.

So what’s the problem, exactly? Partly that, for all that looks and sounds right about it, Leatherheads never quite feels right. Moment by moment, the tempo seems a half-beat or so off Sturges and Hawks — it aims for clickety-clack and ends up closer to clickety-clunk. There are even a few long scenes, such as the first extended meeting between Carter, Dodge, Lexie and Carter’s self-interested agent (Jonathan Pryce), during which the pace slows to a near crawl. And for all the novelty of a movie set against the early days of that national religion known as the NFL, Leatherheads devotes curiously little time to on-field action, even though those scenes turn out to be some of its liveliest — the players becoming a blur of muddy motion, the refs consulting their newly minted rule books before making their calls. It’s also, I think, the least visually adventurous of Clooney’s three films as director — an intentional choice, according to the press notes, where Clooney and his cinematographer, Thomas Sigel (who also shot, quite brilliantly, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), speak of their affection for the “static” filmmaking grammar of the ’30s and ’40s comedy classics. But look closely at those films and you will see that, while their directors never moved the camera ostentatiously, when they did, they did so as elegantly as a camera has ever been moved.

Those aren’t easy criticisms to make, and I suspect that many reviewers will be softer on Leatherheads than they should be. For Clooney isn’t just the “last movie star” — he may be the last of a breed of multihyphenate minimogul (the heir to Warren Beatty and Burt Lancaster) who uses his charm and popular clout to back risky projects, and who has, in what have been generally bleak times for mainstream American movies, done a great deal to sustain our belief in the possibilities of smart Hollywood movies for grown-ups. And besides, screwball comedy is hard and Leatherheads is nothing if not an admirable stab at it — far from Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? but several paces ahead of the Coen brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy and Intolerable Cruelty. My point is simply that Clooney makes us expect the best of him each and every time he takes to the field, and Leatherheads is considerably less than that.

LEATHERHEADS | Directed by GEORGE CLOONEY | Written by DUNCAN BRANTLEY and RICK REILLY | Produced by GRANT HESLOV and CASEY SILVER | Released by Universal Pictures | Citywide

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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