“Leatherheads” tries to be a screwball comedy, but it’s more The Eleven Stooges.
Screwball comedy in its heyday in the late 1930’s was a brilliant genre that produced classics such as Howard Hawks’s “Bringing Up Baby” (1938) with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. It was a madcap genre with scintillating dialogue.
Director Peter Bogdanovich in 1972 made a nice stab at paying it homage with “What’s Up, Doc?” starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal.
Now George Clooney throws a wobbly pass at the genre. It falls incomplete. George Clooney is no Hawks, or Preston Sturges, or Cary Grant. He’s an earnest likable celebrity with some grace and style, but despite his self-effacing aplomb he’s still only Kentucky’s answer to Cary Grant.
Clooney really likes the mud too much to be Cary Grant. An oft-repeated image in “Leatherheads” is Clooney covered with mud from head to foot, but his immaculate, bleached teeth always shine through as in an Orbit chewing gum ad. The whole picture seems like a dippy Orbit ad.
Clooney likes to dip into the past for many of his projects. He was emanately effective directing “Good Night and Good Luck” (2005) about Edward R. Murrow, but in 2006 he appeared in Steven Soderbergh’s 1940’s noir movie “The Good German,” which was a coy disaster.
Clooney likes coyness and it’s all over the place in “Leatherheads.”
“Leatherheads” is set in 1925 and is the rambling story of a pro football team in a dying league that undergoes a transformation that leads to success for professional football.
Dodge Connolly (Clooney) is the leader of the Duluth Bulldogs — a ragtag bunch of players who appear on their last legs. Their league is dissolved, when Dodge gets an idea of how to bring them back to a better life.
He gets war hero and Princeton football star Carter “Bullet” Rutherford (John Krasinski) to join his team and use his popular heroic image to fill stadiums. But Bullet’s heroism is not what it seems.
On the track of the real story behind the myth is Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger) a journalist from the Chicago Tribune, who uses her wiles on the young football player. It becomes a romantic triangle when Dodge and Bullet both become enamored of Lexie.
The cast of “Leatherheads” is likable, but that only goes so far — about to midfield. Since Clooney directs, he seems to have cast a cardboard cutout of himself as dubious Dodge. John Krasinski is amiable but one-dimensional as the young suitor. Renee Zellweger is engaging, but she should wince at some of the things she has to say. Jonathan Pryce wanders in and out as a natty financier. Peter Gerity has a thankless roles as the new football commish, and Steven Root does what he can with the generic role of a booze-hound sportswriter. All are capable in unchallenging roles.
The cinematography, by Newton Thomas Sigal, and the music, by Randy “Not-So” Newman, create a sense of the time.
The biggest failure of “Leatherheads” is lame dialogue. Screwball comedy’s wordplay should be smart and breezy. The dialogue in “Leatherheads” is dull and wheezy. It seems calculated, strained, and at times embarrassing. It lacks the lilt and sass that enlivened the genre.
Hiring Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly as writers must have seemed a good idea at the time, since both once wrote for Sports Illustrated, but they flounder with screwball inventiveness. They watch, but they have no idea how to play.
Director George Clooney tries to keep the good-nature of the genre alive, but he is limited. Many of the comic bits are flubbed — the Keystone Kops are simply klumsy.
Clooney’s brand of pleasantness doesn’t sufficiently serve the screwball elements. He doesn’t fumble. But neither does he score.