Carter Rutherford: “Maybe they’ll just adjust to me.”
Every seat in the stands is filled. The screams from the crowd almost eclipse the sound of the marching band. It is 1925 and both the country and its interest in college football is thriving. Meanwhile, at a game just a few fields away, a spectator could practically get an entire bench to themselves; a cow on the field goes unnoticed; and the entire thing could be called off because there is no spare football to be found when the game ball goes missing. Given today’s interest in the sport, it seems implausible to say but this second game is actually being played by the professionals. Apparently, back in the 20’s, America encouraged their young men to get on the field and toss the ball around for their amusement but expected them to grow up and be real men once college and the game were done. “Leatherheads”, George Clooney’s third time behind the lens of a feature film, follows one man’s refusal to play by the rules and his quest to legitimize the boys who would rather play than become productive members of society.
With Randy Newman’s swing jazz score keeping the tone lively and the entire cast generally looking like they’re having a blast, it is a wonder that “Leatherheads” falls as flat as it does. It’s got the look, the style, the attitude but it lacks the luster and the laughs necessary to transport the audience to a time when comedy meant screwball instead of raunchy. First time feature writers, Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, go back over 80 years to tell their story but while recreating the proper language lends to the credibility of the scenario, writing in jokes that are just as old as the story itself does nothing to inspire a single guffaw. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A guy and a gal are having words and the lady says, “I didn’t come here to be insulted.” Without pause, the man retorts, “No, where do you usually go?” You aren’t laughing, are you? I told you to stop me. Still, it may be unfair to lay the blame entirely on Brantley and Reilly as the script itself has a few years on it. Originally written over fifteen years ago, only a few original scenes made it into Clooney’s revised version but with the bare essentials intact, Clooney was not awarded any writing credit for his overhaul.
This particular caper find Clooney as Dodge Connolly, a forty-five year old professional football player that has no other skills other than playing it rough on the field. When his team seems to be headed for extinction due to lack of interest and therefore funds, he must make the country take notice of professional football or find a real job. To do this, he enlists Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford (John Krasinski) out of college ball and turns him pro. This puts the crowds in the seats instantly and draws the attention of the media to a franchise they thought to be fumbling. One journalist in particular, Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), is sent in from Chicago to debunk the star player and soon enough, both Dodge and The Bullet are vying for her attentions. Clooney’s got his Cary Grant face on, Zellweger’s back in her Roxie Hart mode and Krasinski’s just got a face that beams with earnestness that you can’t help but love the guy. All around, the film is perfectly cast but everyone plays their part by the book. Funny how a film that makes such a strong statement about how rules ruined the game of football is so afraid of breaking them.
Clooney is a formidable director. His last effort, “Good Night and Good Luck”, earned him well-warranted accolades and he proves once again with “Leatherheads” that he is capable of assembling all the proper elements necessary to design a particular tenor. His issue here is that there are perhaps too many factors to consider and he loses sight of the whole and how that final product will come across to the audience. Unlike the players on the field, Clooney seems afraid to dive into the mud and get his film a little dirty. Every aspect is so polished but the game just isn’t as exciting if nobody gets their uniform dirty. And just because a play works on paper, doesn’t mean it will score your team a touchdown.
Review by Joseph Bélanger