Sunday, May 25, 2008
He Said: LEATHERHEADS
Leatherheads is the sort of screwball comedy that happens when you take out the comedy and are only left with the screwball. It is certainly zany, but it’s not funny, and therefore not engaging or entertaining.
The film is based on an over-a-decade-old script by Sports Illustrated writers Rick Reilly and Duncan Brantley, and while I have admired their sports commentary in the past, writing a sports film is an entirely different beast. Apparently their original script took a more serious angle, which for this material would have been disastrous. Clooney snapped up the project years later and put his own goofy comic spin on it…which doesn’t really work, either. It doesn’t seem as if Clooney has his heart in it, to be honest…it’s like he took the original script and just made every scene as silly as he could, without realizing that each individual scene may not work in harmony with every other scene. Such discord is standard for Leatherheads, which never comes close to hitting either its dramatic stride or comic rhythm. It just plays on the screen, waiting to be chuckled at.
Leatherheads is set loosely against the backdrop of the rise of professional football in 1925 America. Clooney himself plays Dodge, an aging football player who wants to bring his rag-tag group of beer-bellied brawlers to an organized, professional league. In his quest to legitimize his efforts, he recruits Carter Rutherford, a revered war hero (and cocky college football star) to bring the league a household name and force sponsors to take notice. Carter is played by The Office’s John Krasinski, who is sterling on that wonderful show, but who seems disingenuous playing a character who is so…well, disingenuous. Covering the story is a “scrappy female journalist” named Lexie (Renee Zellweger), who is fighting to be just one of the guys, and who unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly) draws the affections of both Dodge and Carter.
Essentially, the film consists of a series of screwball scenes loosely held together by what could only be described as a pseudo-plot, a clothesline on which much zaniness is hung. The true purpose of the film is not to seriously discuss American football in the 1920s, or to even make a sincere romantic comedy. The point is to emulate the sassy comedies of Billy Wilder (or even further back to the films of Preston Sturges, but this film is far too tame to even touch the master’s throne). Clooney and especially Zellweger, whose performance possesses more vivacious life than the entire rest of the film, are up to the challenge. Their repartee is almost as witty as Clooney was expecting it to be, and is where the film is at its best. Krasinski seems so out of his element as a jerky football player that perhaps being typecast as Jim Halpert might be a good thing for his career. There are a few legitimate laughs between the three leads, but it takes so long to get to the point where their screwball romantic exploits are actually connecting that the film has already run out of steam.
Why Clooney chose this as his post-Oscar directorial effort is beyond me. He obviously has a close relationship with the Coen brothers, and perhaps thought he could bring a similar offbeat sensibility to this ultimately very standard, very unsurprising material. But Clooney must have forgotten that it takes a certain magic to make a Coen brothers comedy work (which is why they must simultaneously take full credit for Fargo and take the blame for The Ladykillers). I am convinced that Clooney is capable of that magic—I have seen his other two wonderful films. But those films were much darker than this trifle, and straight screwball comedy is a much shakier high-wire than anything Clooney has walked as a director before. I am sure he will get there…but you can’t expect to be Billy Wilder—or even Joel and Ethan Coen—right out of the gate. Clooney is still a baby in the directing game. And he is a prodigy, but now he needs to work towards pushing even further.
For someone like Clooney, it won’t take long. But Leatherheads is a pretty unfortunate bump in the road.