There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love old movies, and the ones who think they’re a serious waste of time. Me? I’m obsessed with them. So I bug people to watch them with me and write about them and cry when TCM has transmission problems. When you’re George Clooney, however, you get to make them all over again, either with your favorite directors (Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German and Joel and Ethan Coen’s Intolerable Cruelty, for example) or by yourself.
Thus, Clooney’s third turn in the director’s chair: Leatherheads – on the up side, George Clooney and John Krasinski; on the flip side, the ever shrinking Rene Zellweger and football. The promise of quickfire wit vs. boys incomprehensibly scrabbling in mud. I was in two minds before I even saw it.
Meet Dodge “the middle-aged Boy Wonder” Connelly (Clooney). He has a problem – he’s a football player past his sell-by date whose team has just gone under. That’s when he discovers that chasing a ball and bashing in other men’s skulls (they weren’t so finicky about things like assault masquerading as play in 1925) won’t get him paid off the football field.
Carter “the Bullet” Rutherford is his solution – a decorated First World War veteran now playing college football and drawing in the crowds like flies to honey. Like everybody else he thinks pro-football is a joke (the $100 million contracts hadn’t been imagined yet) but his slimy manager is willing to convince him otherwise for a hefty fee: $5000 plus profit sharing for the manager. (Those violins you hear? Team owners across America shedding a tear at the thought of the good ol’ days.)
Lexie Littleton, however, is Carter‘s problem – she’s a determined reporter at a Chicago newspaper trying to hack it alone in a male world and Carter’s increasingly suspicious war record might be her leg up the ladder. Or, failing a career making/breaking scandal, he’s a rather suitable love interest.
Too bad Dodge is around, making her laugh, dancing with her in speakeasies, defenestrating her, kissing her silly, asking her to marry him, saving her job and generally acting in a thoroughly distracting knight errant manner.
Sounds fun, doesn’t it? And it is, in bits and pieces – just not as much you’d expect or I’d hoped.
The biggest problem with Leatherheads is the very thing that is also it’s greatest strength: George Clooney. And George Clooney’s greatest strength and weakness are also the same: indulgence.
No matter how you look at it, there is a certain amount of indulgence involved in the making of a $50 million movie like Leatherheads. No matter how you play it, this isn’t a conventional Hollywood product with a guaranteed payday. For one thing, it straddles two worlds: the sports movie and the romantic comedy. And right when you think that this argues a coldly clinical play for the maximum possible cash (come see our movie – it has a little something for everybody!), Clooney refuses to dumb things down in search of the widest possible demographic and sets it in the 1920s. Let’s call it a Hollywood masala sandwich served on Rookwood china.
When you’re Clooney and you have a thing for old school Hollywood – and, apparently, football – it seems you can tweak the romantic comedy format to make it less paint-by-numbers and still get a studio to greenlight it even if the death knell, say some people, sounded long ago for the genre as a whole.
But it is not ambition that drags Leatherheads down. It is the fact that its director is a bit too much in love with his story. There are all sorts of odd editing decisions, for example: most notably, after staging a pretty magical sequence in a speakeasy followed by a hilarious suicide attempt, Clooney cuts The Big Kiss right when Lexie and Dodge were really getting into it by making Dodge offer to walk her back to the hotel. Seriously. We get tens of minutes of Dodge wallowing in mud but you cut away from The Big Kiss so he can say, literally, “Come on, I’ll walk you home”? I get it, George, Lexie brings out his gentlemanly side – but trust me when I tell you that Lexie did not appreciate that cut.
Then there is the token black guy. Maybe Clooney didn’t mean for him to come off like that and felt there needed to be some balance in retrospect (to be fair, there were a few black players in football starting 1921) but what else do you call the one black guy in an otherwise all white cast (well, there was also a band that played the blues in the speakeasy, including Ledisi Young) who gets to sit up front in the train and read the newspaper reports to all of them? Granted the movie takes place up North but 1925 isn’t that far removed from 1919 when Chicago, one of the places shown in the movie, was in the grip of race riots. Hell, there were so many race riots that year, they gave that summer a special name.
However, when Clooney gets something right, he really nails it. The casting, for instance, is perfect. Zellweger, the person I was most doubtful about, looks right at home and her Lexie was the best thing she’s done in years. The first time you see her, she’s cutting some guy into ribbons with her wit and you totally get why Dodge can’t take his eyes off her.
Krasinski’s comic talents, we find out, extend beyond the dry humor of The Office but he really shines in the smaller more dramatic scenes where he plays a young man facing up to his burdens. Give this man a chance, Hollywood! And the true story of Carter Rutherford? Hysterical.
And Clooney is, of course, right at home. He does that star thing so well here that you wonder how much of Dodge is actually Clooney himself, an aging player unable to stop time from marching on and bringing about the changes that might be for the better but sure as hell aren’t as much fun. There’s a scene where none of the boys will go out drinking with him the night before the game because they’re all on curfew now.
“Where was I?” he asks of when the decision was made.
“Sleeping,” says one of them.
It’s a horrible little moment, deftly handled. Less well handled – I think – are the football bits. I have no idea what a game of football entails other than running after an oddly shaped ball (yeah, that’s what I said) and Tom Brady (what? I like to look at him. In pictures.) and this movie doesn’t make me want to know more. I might, however, be more interested if it was more of a brawl and less of a game as Leatherheads says it was meant to be.
Wait, does that mean mission accomplished? Huh.