LEATHERHEADS directed by George Clooney, written by Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, with Clooney, Renée Zellweger, John Krasinski, Stephen Root and Jonathan Pryce. A Universal release. 113 minutes. Opens Friday (April 4). Rating: NN
Of all the Coen brothers movies for George Clooney to emulate, why in the world would he pick The Hudsucker Proxy?
That’s the question I was asking myself throughout the two long hours of Leatherheads, Clooney’s shaggy comedy about the early days of professional football. It works only fitfully as a comedy, and not at all as a sports picture.
Leatherheads is Clooney’s third film as a director, after Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind and Good Night, And Good Luck, but it doesn’t feel like it was made by the same person. Confessions and Good Night are marked by smooth storytelling, visual flair and political intelligence; Leatherheads feels like two movies slapped together in the editing suite.
The first is a sly period comedy about an aging football player trying to stay relevant as his carefree ride slides to an end. A new era is dawning, with rules and celebrity players and stuff, and Clooney’s Dodge Connelly is on the verge of becoming a dinosaur.
So, naturally, he falls into a professional and romantic rivalry with the team’s new superstar, Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) over scrappy newspaper reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), who, unbeknownst to Carter, is out to expose his questionable past as a hero of the Great War. (See Hudsucker, above.)
Remember, that’s the first movie. It’s reasonably entertaining, with Clooney giving another of the charming-idiot turns he perfected in the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty, and Krasinski tweaking that aw-shucks thing he does on The Office into the repressed shame of a man desperate to shrug off the mantle that’s been placed on his shoulders.
But that movie keeps getting tackled by the other one that’s somehow snuck into Clooney’s viewfinder, a dull, unimaginative period picture about the way good old-fashioned American gamesmanship was undermined and overwhelmed by agents, media scandals and greed.
Fair points all – and expertly argued in John Sayles’s Eight Men Out – but this movie can’t handle the added weight, and Clooney doesn’t even try to find a balance. He just scurries back to another comic sequence, which only serves to remind us how much better the funny Leatherheads is than the serious one.