Thursday, 10 April 2008

Leatherheads - Review by Robert Duffin

Director: George Clooney
Screenwriter: Duncan Brantley & Rick Reilly
Running Time: 114 mins
Certificate: PG
Release Date: April 11th

George Clooney has clearly never heard of the phrase “once bitten, twice shy.” After the arduous 40s noir homage The Good German and the Hepburn/Tracy aping stinker Intolerable Cruelty, he once again feels the urge to revisit a genre from the Golden Age of Hollywood; the screwball comedy. Leatherheads, set in the world of 1920s American Football, is not exactly what was expected from Clooney the director. After finding his footing with his debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, he struck gold with the sublime Good Night, and Good Luck. After a few years of being Hollywood’s favourite politically conscious lefty (fronting the likes of Syriana and Michael Clayton), perhaps the former World’s Sexiest Man went looking for his funny bone.

Long before the bright lights and packed stadiums, pro-football was a strictly college only sport. Older stars like Dodge Connelly (Clooney), captain of the Duluth Bulldogs, have seen better days but are never out of bright ideas. The team is going under after having their sponsorship pulled, so Connelly coerces agent CC Frazier (Jonathan Pryce) into loaning the Bulldogs his star college player Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford (John Krasinski) to turn their fortunes around. The spanner in the works is spunky reporter (was there any other kind in those days?) Lexie Littleton (Renee Zelleweger), who has discovered that Rutherford’s status as a war hero has been exaggerated and is out to “cook his goose.” A Philadelphia Story love triangle ensues, as Lexie struggles with ruining the prospects of the naïve Carter and the hopes of the roguish Dodge.

Clooney has freely admitted in the press to utilising the style of his favourite films and filmmakers to inform his own directorial efforts, and it’s evident here that he’s aiming for somewhere between Howard Hawks and The Coen Brothers. Dodge and Lexie are played like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, the nutty characters and over the top performances paying equal homage to Bringing Up Baby and The Lady Eve. The trademark rapid-fire dialogue and barb trading, which Clooney excels at, are present and correct and no one has achieved quite as much sass as Zelleweger since Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy. As filmmaker Clooney pulls off the period stylings fairly well, keeps things moving at a snappy pace and, along with cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel, creates a gorgeous sepia toned nostalgic aesthetic.

In recent weeks Clooney has quit the WGA over being refused writing credit on this project. One has to wonder why he would want a credit, as the screenplay is the biggest letdown of the whole enterprise. Credited writers Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly previously worked together on Sports Illustrated, but fail to make this work as a sports film, offering very little insight into the development of the sport, and the laughs don’t always work either. While Clooney and Zelleweger have practiced their shtick before, in O Brother Where Art Thou and Down With Love respectively, John Krasinski looks a little uncomfortable and often resorts to mugging for laughs. The film coasts for too long, the love triangle amounting to very little, and the final football game, a genre cliché that should be easy to pull off for the talent involved, falls flat and rests on an absurd final seconds tactic.

However, this is a not as sizable a chink in the Clooney armour as were Good German and Intolerable Cruelty. Gorgeous George, through sheer force of will, makes it work despite its flaws; in a season of froth it is easily the one film that won’t leave you feeling like you’ve lost some brain cells in the theatre. Yet despite wearing it’s lack of pretension on it’s sleeve, there is a deep twinge of disappointment somewhere deep inside that Clooney chose a project of such little substance to follow his mighty McCarthy era masterpiece. The screwball genre and that style of filmmaking is over George, add the Preston Sturges box set to your Christmas list and turn to it whenever this urge takes over again.

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