George Clooney drops the ball in Leatherheads

by Glen Baity

Untold miles of newsprint here in the Triad have been devoted to Leatherheads over the past several months, ever since Universal announced that professional dreamboat George Clooney would be shooting his new film in various locations around the Piedmont.

So locations were scouted, casting calls were held, shooting came and went, and I got a little thrill thinking about how Clooney, Renée Zellweger and Jim from “The Office” were hanging out mere miles from my house.

Now the film has opened, and I have the unenviable task of saying that our local picture is… well, it’s okay. Just okay.

That’s not to say I wasn’t cheering for it. I’m a Greensboro partisan, and like anyone else from around here, I got a charge seeing War Memorial Stadium on the big screen, or catching a glimpse of the Millennium Center underneath its considerable makeup.

Once you get past that, though, there’s something inescapably stale about Leatherheads. For the uninitiated: the film (co-written by Duncan Brantley and Greensboro native Rick Reilly) is a romantic comedy set in 1925 against the backdrop of professional football’s ramshackle infancy. To save his fledgling ;club, the Duluth Bulldogs, from financial ruin, aging player and team owner Dodge Connelly (Clooney) goes out on a limb to draft Princeton hotshot (and war hero) Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), a national darling with a square jaw underneath his million-dollar smile.

At roughly the same time, a newspaper editor in Chicago decides that Carter’s hero story from the Great War (he’s said to have captured an entire German platoon with only the sound of his voice) is a little too good to be true. He sends his best dame, Lexie Littleton (Zellweger), to track down the scoop, an assignment complicated when she goes all wobbly over both Carter and Dodge.

Leatherheads is sold as a movie about the beginnings of pro football, but it’s really not, truth be told. If you doubt it, witness how it ditches the pigskin for much of its second hour, choosing instead to focus on the mostly-dull love triangle between Dodge, Carter and Lexie. You might feel a little chemistry between the reliably rakish Clooney and sour-pussed Zellweger, but the latter’s self-conscious, flouncing delivery drains the fun from the courtship quicker than Clooney can pour it in.

The real strength here is in how Clooney recreates football’s days in the wilderness, before it captured our national attention and developed respectable things like rules and regulations. These games, played by miners, farmhands and assorted roughnecks, were barely distinguishable from barroom brawls, and there’s a real charm in how they’re staged. If only we got more gridiron action.

Unfortunately, the film strives to be just as much an homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age with its focus on the love lives of its three stars, and it’s here that it falls short. Clooney, Zellweger and Krasinski work hard to capture the quickly-cadenced speech of the talkies from that era, but it feels forced, like an acting class exercise instead of a movie. You could make a case for Clooney as a latter-day Cary Grant, but ace newshound Zellweger falters as his Girl Friday, less believable here than in her star turn as salty broad Roxie from 2002’s Chicago.

But thanks to excellent art direction and costume design, the look of the film is top-notch. From the rural fields with their rickety stadium seating to the stately scenes of a roaring downtown Chicago, Leatherheads succeeds at building and breathing life into yesteryear, much like Clooney’s last film, Good Night, and Good Luck. But that’s the only thing the two films have in common.

Leatherheads only shines in those rare moments when it drops the Nick-and-Nora act and has a little unaffected fun. Certain scenes are great – a shot of a pack of Model Ts racing alongside a locomotive, to name one, or the trick play that helps the Bulldogs secure a victory – but they’re few and far between, and they get overshadowed by an uninteresting love story. Leatherheads might gain a few yards, but it’s several plays short of a touchdown.

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