There are some films that set you to pondering. What is the meaning of life? What is my role in the human comedy? The question that LEATHERHEADS inspires is much less esoteric. During the bumpy homage to IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, HIS GIRL FRIDAY, and MEET JOHN DOE, among others, I found myself wondering what the direct antonym of deft is. Awkward doesn’t quite cover it. Uneven comes a bit closer, but as with quintessences, and this is the quintessence of the direct antonym of deft, the sum of this slog is greater that its parts.
Set in 1925, the plot revolves around the birth of professional football as a viable business. It seems in those dark days, football heroes were strictly of the college variety, in this case, Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford (John Krasinski), the bold and brash captain of the Princeton football team. When asked if he’ll miss football when he graduates, the college senior says that maybe he’ll turn pro. General guffaws all around. Pro football in no laughing matter, though, to Jimmy “Dodge” Connelly (George Clooney, who also directed), the bold and brash captain of the Duluth Bulldogs. They’re a hardscrabble team that plays in cow pastures. Sometimes while the cows are still there. That is when they can find a team to play, a proposition that is becoming more and more difficult what with the way the pro teams in the area are going belly up. When his team also goes belly up, and it becomes obvious that he’s not capable of doing anything except play football and dictate the copy about the game to the boozy and dozing local reporter assigned to cover them (wonderfully befuddled Stephen Root), Dodge, comes up with a plan that is as bold and brash as he is. He’ll sign up Carter, draw the massive crowds that college games do, and save himself, his team, and pro football all in one fell swoop.
The complication, aside from gargantuan task of convincing Carter and his venal agent, CC (Jonathan Pryce) that there’s money and glory to be had on the professional gridiron, is Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger), the bold and brash lady reporter for a major Chicago paper. She doesn’t have a swell nickname like the guys do, but she does have an assignment from her editor to build Carter up in the public eye even more than he already is, and then lower the boom about his war hero record being less than accurate.
The plot should write itself, and with a genuine admiration for those delightful screwball comedies from the 30s in full evidence here, it’s all the more disheartening that things went so wrong. Part of it is there being so very much of it and all of it scurrying about like a herd of particularly wayward cats. There are subplots about Dodge’s disdain for rules of any kind that is not explored enough. There is the perfectly delicious snipe at merchandising with Carter’s slew of endorsement deals that never quite takes off. There is the American need for heroes that makes a strong move in the final act when it seems forced. There is the romantic triangle between our attractive trio of stars that doesn’t heat up, though when Clooney’s Dodge invites Zellweger’s Lexie to dance at a speakeasy, there is some serious smolder going on, more from Clooney’s direction and innate charisma than from the moment itself. That comes on the heels of a discussion between Dodge and Lexie about Dodge’s date during with she is called a compound noun that involves the word nipple. From zany to smolder in less than a millisecond and while I’m not saying it can’t be done, Clooney and company haven’t made it work here. As a director, Clooney is terrific with drama. As an actor, he is, too, and just as good with comedy, bringing his world-wise style of cynical tenderness to a script that approximates the snappy patter of the good old days with out ever quite nailing it. When it comes to the comedy, though, it, like the script, approximates rather than nails.
Zellweger is feisty, she does feisty as well as anyone working today, but she’s no Rosalind Russell (who is?) in a role that had her in mind. The poised elegance of complete self-assurance coupled with the merest whiff of condescension is not quite there. Krasinski is a cipher with an earnest face and the soul of a rapscallion wannabe.
LEATHERHEADS, the title refers to the material comprising the intricately manufactured headgear players wore way back when, bolts along for what seems an eternity. Bright spots of genuine silliness erupt at irregular intervals, giving the audience something to cling to and hope for as things progress downhill to the film’s inevitable climactic football game played in several tons of mud. By this time the film has thrown too many Hail Mary passes, faked too many plays, and punted several times too often. Gorgeous to look at, but difficult to sit through as it quickly loses its momentum and fizzles quietly into nothingness.