12 December 2008


Directed by: George Clooney
Written by: Duncan Brantley & Rick Reilly
Full credits from IMDb

Leatherheads opens with a sepia-tinted, old-timey Universal logo that heralds the film’s anachronistic style, though director Clooney gets a bit too carried away with the subsequent signifiers: Cheers-style fonts, players boozing on the football field, kids smoking cigarettes, Randy Newman-written ragtime. All that’s missing is a mousy girl in a flapper hat. Enter RenĂ©e Zellweger in her Chicago costumes. Set in the mid to late ‘20s, Leatherheads is Clooney’s tribute to the screwball comedy. Zellweger plays a caustic newspaperwoman, but she lacks the sparkling timing of Rosalind Russell; and though I’ve long argued that Clooney is his generation’s Cary Grant, I meant of the North by Northwest era. Not Bringing Up Baby.

Goofy comedy (in contrast to the suave deadpan of the Oceans series) has never been Clooney’s strength, which is why his Coen Brothers collaborations usually disappoint, though not always. Leatherheads’ script is stuffed with sharp sarcasm and wit a la His Girl Friday, which it conspicuously emulates. But that’s film virtues were rooted in its actors’ rapid-fire delivery; Clooney’s actors, inclulding John Krasinski, a mere baby-faced schlub when he isn’t breaking a fourth wall, deliver their lines as though their tongues were packed with lead weights.

Set around the advent of professional football, when a group of businessmen turned a gang of mangy miners, ploughmen, factory workers and their scrappy hobby into a national pastime, the film features Krasinski as a war hero and college football star that helps legitimize the game by playing for one of the fledgling professional teams. (Like Pele on the New York Cosmos or David Beckham on the Los Angeles Galaxy—oh wait, wrong kind of football.) Zellweger is the reporter trying to get his story so she can “cook his goose” later; Clooney is a football enthusiast who wants to make the game professional; both need Krasinski, though they conspire to destroy him as well.

As a director, Clooney parses American dark sides: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind exposed a symbiosis between CIA assassinations and pop culture; Good Night and Good Luck addressed McCarthyism and a craven press corps. Leatherheads aims to tackle the same sort of cultural corruption, but only as an afterthought. As the tone slips from a sharp-tongued comedy of words into Buster Keatonish slapstick comedy (again, without the timing), the unfocused movie runs a reel too long while Clooney scrambles to hit several pet political points.

Like, Krasinski’s heroic war story isn’t 100 percent true, and it’s Zellweger’s assignment to get at the truth. At first, she’s pitched as duplicitous for tying to tear him down. “Sometimes this job stinks,” she tells her editor. “A lot of times, kid,” he answers. But unlike The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Leatherheads ultimately doesn’t argue printing the legend as a noble necessity. Exposing the fraud—and being a card-carrying member of the righteous press—is the true act of heroism because it’s Krasinki’s kind of mendacious mythmaking that leads to George W. Bush re-elections.

And Clooney’s dyed-in-the-wool Democratic partisanship turns up elsewhere in the film—like in its advocacy of regulatory agencies—but Leatherheads isn’t ragingly progressive; Clooney retains a measure of nostalgic and reactionary reverence for the romance of the old ways. Rules tend to make the things they’re regulating boring, and football is no exception. Moving to the left might be necessary, but even Clooney knows it can be kind of a drag. Had I reviewed this film when it was released back in April, I might have laughed that its solidly liberal politics are as old-fashioned as its screwball pastiche. But Obama just won the presidency so, really, it’s prescient. If Leatherheads tells us anything, then, it’s that history repeats itself: as the Roaring Twenties ultimately imploded, paving the way for the New Deal, so too must the Raging Aughties end in Obamanomics. Grade: B

Watch the trailer:

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