As recent magazine profiles by starstruck journalist-famous reporter-nerds Joel Stein and A.J. Jacobs have reminded us, George Clooney is a throwback to the movie-stars of old, charming and glamorous, glad-handling and deflecting. Which seems reasonable, though it’s generally when he’s called upon to be what his biggest fans say he is that he comes closest to being what his biggest detractors say he is — namely, smug, as witnessed by his vainglorious mugging in the name of the Coen Brothers’ Depression-era bum’s hallelujah O Brother Where Art Thou? and comedy of remarriage (and divorce, and remarriage) Intolerable Cruelty. (I liked both, and found Clooney’s performances appropriate in both, but still…) Leatherheads is a silent film-era football game played with a 30s screwball, but it takes the time to dust itself off after every pratfall.
Working from a script that’d apparently been punted around for a while, Clooney plays aging barnstormer Dodge Connelly, and John Krasinski plays Great War hero and Princeton halfback Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford, in a time (1925, which doesn’t quite sync with the War timing but no matter) when pro football was for the cow pastures and college football the rapturously reported pastime of the Future Business Leaders of America. Because there’d be no movie otherwise, Connelly snags Rutherford for his Duluth-based squad, in a microcosm of the professional game’s transition to recognizable stars, big stadiums in hub cities, and codified rules. (You can still see the stitching on the script, in the taglines characters toss around: “rules” are on the way in, euthanizing “grandpa” Connelly and the rest of his bygone American Originals.) The slapsticky, trick-play football scenes don’t really ask to be taken seriously; to the extent that Leatherheads knows what kind of movie it wants to be it’s mostly a love triangle between Connelly, Rutherfod and Renée Zellweger’s Intrepid Girl Reporter Lexie Littleton, clearly meant to invoke Rosalind Russell, though her ambivalently undertaken mission of worming her way inside a hero’s whitebread heart to get the inside scoop (in this case, the real story of Rutherford’s war service) is more Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Russell invocation in The Hudsucker Proxy. But Clooney — previously a marvelous director of dialogue, in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’s screwy rhythms and Good Night, and Good Luck’s rapid-fire men-at-work ease — only pushes a couple scenes to a Hawksian double-time. When the one-liners are coming lickety-split, Leatherheads is madcap fun, but most of the time it’s content to be an agreeable charmer.
Opens April 4