On his third time out as a director, George Clooney’s impressive streak ends with the earnest but dull Leatherheads. It’s a good-looking but terribly boring fictional account of the rise of professional football in the 1920s, and everybody in it looks lost. Clooney strains for laughs: His timing is sloppy and most of the humor feels stale and, even worse, ripped off.
As the film starts, college football is riding high with the star popularity of Carter ‘Bullet’ Rutherford (John Krasinski), a supposed World War I hero. It’s alleged that he got an entire German battalion to surrender single-handedly, and Carter has managed to translate his war and sports fame into endorsements of everything from shaving blades to cigarettes. Plucky journalist Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger) is assigned the task of exposing the truth behind Carter’s reputation, while professional football team owner Jimmy ‘Dodge’ Connelly (Clooney) looks to hire him and increase box office receipts.
This is the setup for some muddy football games and listless screwball comedy that tries to invoke period films, but feels false and empty. Clooney gets the look almost right, but the script lacks bite. The quick verbal delivery of the characters is an attempt to emulate the likes of Clark Gable and Cary Grant, but those stars had great dialogue to deliver. The dialogue in Leatherheads is bland, and the proceedings go nowhere.
Carter and Dodge go into competition against one another for Lexie, but none of these dynamics work. Clooney often faces off with the increasingly uninteresting Zellweger, who, in her first few minutes on-screen, torpedoes any hope that the pair will have any fun together. Zellweger, in fancy hats and holding a cigarette just so, doesn’t manage to light up the screen in any way. She and Clooney have zero screen chemistry, and Zellweger looks bored and confused, right along with the audience.
The film has moments of promise, and gets off to a strong start, but the premise wears thin fairly quickly. It begins to falter when Zellweger shows up, clearly forcing some sort of 1920s actress homage. While Clooney and Krasinski are effortless and original, Zellweger is trying to be Claudette Colbert, and she’s no Colbert.
Most of the movie is drab, so when it attempts zany screwball comedy, like Dodge and Lexie donning cop uniforms, or repeatedly opening and closing curtains during heated exchanges, it feels forced. The banter between characters is basically normal dialogue, with sudden shifts into routines that seem lifted from Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. Clooney clearly loves the screwball comedy genre, but he’s all wrong for it.
You know you’re in trouble when the cast list includes hackneyed characters named Curly, Big Gus, and Suds. Suds is played by Stephen Root who, along with Clooney, has frequented a few Coen brothers films. There’s a hint of the Coens’ O Brother Where Art Thou? in this movie, especially in a protracted scene where Clooney and Krasinski have a fistfight. There are many moments that seem like Clooney is trying to copy the patented Coens’ lunacy. As a result, the film feels a bit fake.
In Clooney’s defense, he’s a director who clearly likes to challenge himself. His debut, and best film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, is a brilliant and visually arresting film about Gong Show host Chuck Barris’s alleged life as a CIA killer. Good Night and Good Luck is a terrific period piece reliving the maverick television days of Edward R. Murrow.
Even though Leatherheads is a failure, it’s clear that Clooney is ambitious and is far from slumming. Great directors take major missteps. Spielberg had 1941, Scorsese had New York, New York and Coppola had Jack.
Clooney needs to take a little nap, pick his next directorial project wisely and get back on track. The Internet Movie Database lists a film called Suburbicon, penned by the Coen brothers, as his next possible directing job. That could be very interesting.