Tuesday, April 8, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

“I liked George Clooney’s smile,” the woman in the bathroom told her friend. “And I liked the relationship between him and Renée Zellweger. But I kept looking over and seeing Earl asleep.”

I’m with Earl. I didn’t buy the relationship between aging jock/con man Dodge Connelly (Clooney) and perky newsgal Lexie Littleton (Zellweger) in Leatherheads for a nanosecond. And when they started twitching and twinkling at one another in a strenuous effort to generate sparks, even Clooney’s piano key smile looked forced.

Leatherheads starts with the Universal logo from Hollywood’s golden age of the late 1920s and ‘30s. That’s a wink from director Clooney, who did such an elegant job of evoking the ‘50s in Good Night, and Good Luck. It’s a pledge that his latest movie will capture the stardust from those long-ago years, like some kind of cinematic Hubble Telescope, but this time he can’t keep his promise.

Set in 1925 (and how), Leatherheads is about the birth of professional football – well, sort of. It actually bears the same relationship to pro football as The Bad News Bears does to Little League: the sport is just the backdrop for a comic drama. But that’s not a fair comparison, since Leatherheads makes The Bad News Bears look like Shakespeare.

It’s impossible not to think of other films as you watch this one – and to wish you were watching them instead. A magpie of a movie, Leatherheads stuffs its nest with shards of other films: the romantic triangle in Bull Durham, the tough-cookie newsgal in His Girl Friday, the sepia-toned look of O Brother Where Art Thou, and so on. But borrowing so obviously was a mistake, since this movie suffers in comparison to every one that it pilfers. It even made me miss the flawlessly executed visual style of O Brother, itself a riff played on better films from the 30s that worked much better as a soundtrack than it did as a movie.

You can tell by their comic-book names how deep the characterizations of Lexie and Dodge are – and they’re two of the three main characters. Imagine how stunningly little is done with minor characters like the sadly wasted sports reporter (now there’s a fresh idea), who’s played by the sadly wasted Stephen Root.

The other main character is Carter Rutherford (nicely played by John Krasinski of The Office), who is all-American to the point of parody. A war hero and a football star, Carter draws far bigger crowds to his college games than Dodge’s scruffy professional team, the Duluth Bulldogs, can attract. So Dodge recruits Carter to play for the Bulldogs, figuring the publicity will draw the crowds needed to keep his team – and the sport as a whole – alive.

Will it or won’t it? I couldn’t care less, yet that’s pretty much the plot. Well, that and the inevitable love story, which plays out as a triangle between Dodge, Carter, and Lexie, whose Chicago paper assigns her to do a story on Carter.

Zellweger plays another of her patented spunky, smiling-through-her-tears, game little gals next door. She’s Jean Arthur all over again, that one, but this time she’s trying to play Roz Russell in His Girl Friday, and she just doesn’t have the vinegar or the salt – or the chemistry with her costar. When those two woo, Zellweger pruning up her kewpie doll lips while Clooney twitches his in an exaggerated pantomime of desire, you just feel sorry for them both.

Truth be told, Dodge seems a lot more interested in Carter. Homoerotic undertones are a cliché of sports movies, but they’re highlighted in this one, by the excess of male bonding over fistfights and a climactic football game that looks more like mud wrestling.

The pace is choppy, starting in a jerky setup-punchline mode and degenerating into shapelessness. It’s all strenuously underscored by Randy Newman’s self-consciously, often ironically, perky score, which leans on period pieces like “Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye,” lest we forget for a moment that we’re in the ‘20s.

Things like the headlines twirling as papers come off the press in some of the way-too-many montages only make you conscious of how hard Clooney is trying to evoke the movies of the ‘30s. The joy of those movies came largely from their inventiveness and wit and the trust their makers had in the audience’s intelligence. Trying to revive those qualities by recreating now-cliched scenes like a speakeasy raid and a frenetic press conference, complete with popping flashbulbs, is like trying to create life by reanimating a corpse.

The dialogue – the crown jewel of those ‘30s comedies – lurches to life for a moment here or there, mostly when Dodge and Lexie are trading insults. But for the most part it’s either pedestrian or labored.

The camera is lumbering too, coming in tight to magnify the mugging rather than hanging back far enough to focus on relationships. And the pacing is way too slow. The great screwball comedies moved twice as fast – and that was before our attention spans had been so famously amped up.

Even the story’s internal timeline is off. If Carter was a WWI hero, why is he a fresh-faced undergraduate seven years after the war has ended? How do we go so fast from pro football being written off to sellout crowds? How did all those ads and posters with Carter’s face on them get produced so soon after he goes pro?

But hey, if Clooney doesn’t care, why should we?

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