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Leatherheads: A throwback that can’t quite punch it in

By John Anderson
Special to the Washington Post
WASHINGTON ó “Fumble” doesn’t quite describe George Clooney’s “Leatherheads,” the actor-director’s Prohibition-era sports comedy. It’s good-natured. Droll. Buoyant. Fast-paced. Electric. An adrenaline-fueled thrill ride!!! Okay, not quite, not really. But it is a romp, one that might have been called “When Football Was Rugby.” Or “The Rules of the Game.” Already been done? Well, so has most of “Leatherheads.”
Make no mistake: Clooney is the Peyton Manning of movie stars, so he’s allowed to punt once in a while. But “Leatherheads” is his third feature as director, and his first real misstep. I believe I laughed out loud five times ó which may not seem bad, considering there was also the occasional snort, titter and appreciative “hmmm.” But three of those five involuntary chuckles were about something I’m pretty sure Groucho Marx said 75 years ago. Call the whole movie an interception.
Clooney plays Dodge Connelly, a World War I vet and pioneer in the doomed sport of professional football. No one in 1925 thinks the enterprise will last, until Dodge has a brainstorm ó lure war-hero-turned-Princeton-gridiron-star Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski of “The Office”) away from law school to help spearhead pro football’s drive into the American imagination. Rah! What no one knows, except her editor, is that ace reporter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger) has been assigned to get the goods on Carter ó whose exploits in the trenches may not have been as glorious as the nation’s been led to believe.
As one might expect from Clooney, who reportedly rewrote the Duncan Brantley/Rick Reilly script, there are subtexts, chief among them the imposition of rules that turned the free-for-all that was football into the game we have today, which is more like contract bridge. There’s also a rather self-deprecating potshot at celebrity ó football, a team sport, is going to be rescued by Carter, the stand-alone box-office star.
These matters aren’t heavy-handed. They’re far more subtle than, say, Zellweger, who either has a lemon slice stuck to the roof of her mouth or is, as TV’s “Family Guy” once portrayed her, an anteater. So much lip-pursing, mouth-scrunching cuteness. She’s desperately trying to channel Jean Arthur at her most Capraesque and instead comes out closer to Jennifer Jason Leigh in “The Hudsucker Proxy” ó which, considering all the other stuff Clooney is borrowing from the Coen brothers, could well have been an inspiration.
One of Clooney’s accomplishments here is the physical appearance of the people who populate this movie. No one looks as if their family’s gene pool has been intruded upon since the Irish potato famine of 1847. As Harvey Korman put it in “Blazing Saddles,” “mugs, pugs, lugs …” (sorry, all this comedy kleptomania is infectious). The faces certainly help Clooney capture the period he’s after ó of Gershwin, running boards and bootleg booze.
So does the score by Randy Newman, who makes an appearance as a speakeasy piano player, breaking a bottle over a soldier’s head ó yes, the slapstick is as lukewarm as the script. And just as felonious: I can’t remember if the shot of the football player literally flattened into the field was from “Horsefeathers” or Harold Lloyd’s “The Freshman,” but it’s been done somewhere, a long time ago.
None of which would matter if there weren’t a flatness about the whole enterprise ó like drinking champagne from an old house slipper. This misfiring begins with the casting of Zellweger but is seen, too, in the way Clooney frames his picture. With “Good Night, and Good Luck,” his last directing job, Clooney created a tour de force of confinement, with little existing outside the walls of the Edward R. Murrow-era CBS studios ó or, by extension, Murrow’s mind. But this is a football movie; some concession might have been made to the great outdoors in which the sport was played, or some advantage taken of it. The repetitive angles and head-on shooting were probably calculated for nostalgic effect (the liberated camera of “Citizen Kane” was 16 years away, after all). But there’s a claustrophobia in “Leatherheads” that was absent from “Good Night,” despite the latter’s having taken place exclusively indoors.
Re: his performance, Clooney is terrific. As he has shown in the past, his comparison to old movie stars is not just hype. He really does possess the combination of supreme confidence and humility that was the hallmark of the biggest male Hollywood stars. And he can act. In all seriousness, when Dodge first spots Lexie in their hotel lobby, the camera follows as he keeps moving, never lifting his eyes from her, and Clooney gives us the unmistakable look of a man who knows he’s stepping off a precipice ó he’s fascinated, infatuated, self-aware, but surrendering nonetheless.
It’s a lovely moment. And then it occurred to us: It’s the same thing we got from Clark Gable, during that oft-cited shot of Rhett Butler eyeballing Scarlett from the bottom of the staircase at Twelve Oaks. Amid all the allusions and homages, Lexie and Dodge will engage in their own civil war. But it will be a surprise, frankly, if anyone gives a damn.
ó ó ó
“Leatherheads” (114 minutes) is rated PG-13 for vulgar language.

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