Watching Leatherheads, the moments I found myself laughing out loud were scattered throughout. However, for most of its running time, I was grinning ear-to-ear. There is a certain madcap sweetness I really appreciated in this film. For his third time in the director's chair, George Clooney has brought us this spirited and likable tribute to 1940s romantic comedies. In fact, if it were to be filmed in black and white and have all of the four letter words removed from the dialogue, this probably could easily be mistaken as a movie from that era. While this may alienate or confuse a lot of mainstream audiences, I liked what Clooney attempts to do here, and the energy of the cast he's gathered cannot be denied.
Indeed, Clooney seems to be channeling the spirit of Spencer Tracy or Cary Grant in his portrayal of Dodge Connelly, a fast-talking and charming professional football player who may be getting a bit too old for the game, but his love for it hasn't died. The story is set in 1925, when professional football was merely a blip on society's radar. When we first see Clooney's team playing, they're in a mud-covered farm field, trying their best to play despite the cow that's grazing in the middle of it, while a small handful of spectators watch from a makeshift stand with what can best be described as casual indifference. College football is where the action is, and there's no one brighter in that field than a young player named Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski). Not only is he a gifted athlete, but he's also a World War I hero, and has racked up a number of endorsement deals. With professional football on the verge of collapsing, Dodge takes a chance and talks Carter into playing for his team, hoping that he will bring some notoriety and fans with him. He works out a deal with Carter's oily agent (Jonathan Pryce), and almost instantly, Dodge's team is making front page news.
Carter also happens to bring along a journalist from a Chicago newspaper that's investigating some claims about Carter's now-legendary war heroics. She's Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger), and in the tradition of the old comedies this movie pays tribute to, she's a feisty young woman who speaks her mind, and is just trying to make it in a male-dominated industry. Like Clooney, Zellweger understands the material, and gives her performance a real old fashioned charm that recalls Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. There's a wonderful competitive relationship that forms between the two characters, and it is only heightened by the screenplay's rapid-fire dialogue, which the two actors deliver with nearly flawless precision. There's a joy in watching and listening to these two characters banter with each other. The sly wit that constantly sneaks in with Clooney's numerous one-liners hits you out of the blue, and supplies the film with many of its bigger laughs. As the third lead character, John Krasinski doesn't have quite the charm of his two co-stars, but he mainly exists as a third wheel in the relationship that slowly begins to grow between Dodge and Lexie. He at least plays his part well.
What surprised me the most is that Clooney is just as effective behind the camera here, if not more so, than he is on. This movie has a great look to it that not only perfectly captures the look of the era, but it has been shot beautifully, with a simple setting such as the lobby of a grand hotel or the interior of a train catching your attention. He has a real eye for detail here, and it gives the movie a time capsule feel. I also enjoyed the appropriately jazzy music score by Randy Newman, which only adds to the atmosphere. The storytelling and the script may be old fashioned, but his direction is constantly eye-catching and he pays some clever tributes to the films that inspired Leatherheads, such as the way he uses the old black and white Universal Studios logo at the beginning of the film instead of the modern one. There's also a sense of fun in the movie, especially during the football scenes. One of the themes of the film is professional football "growing up" from being an anything goes free-for-all, to something that vaguely starts to resemble the sport it is today. It gives the story a somewhat wistful and nostalgic quality that is sweet, while at the same time managing to be fairly subtle.
The question I have is how will the public at large react to the film? Despite his status as a bankable star, George Clooney has always been an actor who has defied expectations, and never shied away from doing something different. While it is a romantic comedy, it is an old fashioned romantic comedy modeled after the ones of yesterday, and some viewers may find the pace a bit too leisurely for their liking. There are moments where Leatherheads does start to strain a little (its climax seems dragged out, not quite to the breaking point, but close enough), but I was charmed enough by the atmosphere and the performances not to mind. I do wish the movie spent a little bit more time on its subplot about Carter and his war stories, as it probably would have made the character a bit more interesting if more detail was given. I feel it important to stress that I am not recommending the film because of its old fashioned style, although that is a big part of its charm. I think that patient viewers who give it a chance will find some witty dialogue, likable characters, and a certain sense of mischief that has long been a trademark in Clooney's sense of humor.
Although I do have to question the studio's decision to release this movie just as baseball season is beginning to kick off (a fall launch would have been more appropriate), Leatherheads is a pleasant and breezy film that wins you over slowly but surely. It's smart enough to know the difference between enjoyable old fashioned charms and old fashioned corniness, and kept my interest because of it. It may not be as memorable as Clooney's last directing effort, the wonderful Good Night and Good Luck, but it won me over just the same.
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