Sunday, April 6, 2008

Movie Review: Leatherheads

As the timing goes, so goes the comedy. Timing is, of course, important for any sort of film, but in comedies it assumes a role of such prominence that the success of the entire piece is dependent upon it. An unlikely character is pardonable; poor action choreography is of no moment; we can even forgive a distracted and unfocused plot, but if the comedic pace is off the comedy simply cannot be successful. In Leatherheads, George Clooney’s third directorial effort, there are sporadic moments where the project works, but these are islands in an ocean, and they grow sparser as the movie progresses.

It takes place in 1925, at a time when the popularity of football was centered around the college game. Jimmy ‘Dodge’ Connelly (George Clooney) is the de facto captain of a professional football team from Duluth, Minnesota, an impecunious squad which must forfeit a game because it does not have money to provide a second game ball when the first is stolen. They travel from blue collar Midwest town to blue collar Midwest town, drying their laundry by hanging it outside the train as they go, changing destinations if their next opponent goes bankrupt in the middle of the week. In an effort to achieve greater financial stability for the league, Connelly recruits a young Princeton star, Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) to play for the team. But Lexie Littleton, played by Renee Zellweger, is a reporter who has been hired to try and uncover an embarrassing secret in Carter’s military service, and when she begins to travel with the team, Connelly and Rutherford both begin to fall for her.

As a football player, the smooth and handsome George Clooney is miscast. His character is a forty-something football veteran who has made a living for years doing little else. When his Duluth team temporarily disbands and he seeks employment, he comes face to face with the reality that he has no skills or education to make him attractive to an employer. And yet, this uneducated Midwestern football player, who gets in multiple fist fights during the course of the movie, is oh so smooth with Ms. Littleton, master of the frank look and the tilted head, the slight caress to the chin before his soft lips brush hers. No French noble was ever more debonair. My grandfather played semi-professional football for a blue collar Midwest city back in the 1920’s and I can tell you that this is not how he wooed his women. Nor, to judge from his stories, did his teammates operate anyway similar.

There is more than just Clooney’s effete charm that feels out of place. The radio announcers sound like they are working for ESPN, for instance. I have heard old time radio broadcasts and the cadences and rhythms and vocal tones of these men sound nothing like what one hears today. A couple hours with some archival tapes might have helped to add some authenticity to the picture.

The football action isn’t impressive either, not that this distinguishes the movie from any other football movie I’ve ever seen, but it would be nice for once to see a football movie in which the director was less interested in rigidly composing the action of a play to the point where it feels stilted and the camera interferes with the flow. Why not just line the boys up and let them play some football with the cameras rolling? This would have the added benefit of cutting down on plays which one sees two or three times in a season but in the movie one sees with a frequency that makes them boring.

But these are small complaints. A bit more problematic is the script itself, which often has trouble choosing a story to pursue and leaving many in their incipient stages. In the beginning of the movie some ado is made of a new recruit from high school that will be joining their team at the next train stop. It turns out that the teenager is a whale of a man and capable of beating the snot out of anyone who comes near him. But after this introduction, his importance in the movie is reduced to appearing in the background during some of the games. One wonders what the point was of spending time introducing him. There are a couple distracting scenes which seem to have been filmed simply because they were opportunities for slap stick comedy, not because any role they play in bringing us to the third act. And the third act itself is less satisfying than it might be because the various threads of plot are not brought together in a last madcap rush of adrenaline, but rather fizzle out one by one. The end of the second act, to the extent that I am even confident I know when this occurs, doesn’t leave one yearning for the third as it should, tingling with anticipation.

A comedy can survive, however, with a middling story if the scenes are funny enough. The Good Lord knows that Monty Python’s Meaning of Life is not as good as its predecessors, largely due to a wandering script with little cohesion between scenes, but many of the individual scenes themselves are hysterical. Leatherheads has moments when it is amusing in a charming and clever way – mainly when Clooney and Zellweger are interacting – but all too often the right notes just aren’t hit at the right tempo. And not enough hay is made with the different characters’ objectives, which are at cross purposes with the others, nor with all the deceit and trickery in which they might have engaged.

Worst of all, the movie can’t – or perhaps it is more correct to say refuses – to keep its momentum going. For all the other irritations, the worst part is when Carter’s back story, whose culmination is premature, deviates into some sort of government-worshipping morality tale when Congress assigns a commissioner to the professional league – something which, as far as I can tell, is entirely fictional – who starts to impose order on the affairs. What would we poor folk do without a government? The commissioner immediately imposes rules, licenses the players – God forbid that people start playing football without bureaucratic say-so! – and with a threatening stare and a tough-guy voice begins to generally throw his weight around. In a scene which flattens the momentum – a scene devoid of the quick banter that provided the most humorous moments – the story slows down so that the tough guy can deliver a lecture and, one cannot help but feel, so that Mssr. Clooney can lecture us a little as well. It was far too serious, too slow and too preachy for the movie in which it appeared.

For all that’s wrong with it, however, it still has its charm. Zellweger and Clooney have some very good moments filled with snappy dialogue, and Randy Newman’s score is the perfect compliment to the picture; indeed, his score is what the movie should have been: relentlessly lighthearted, brisk, old-fashioned and too caught up with having fun to slow down and get serious. Maybe Newman should have composed the score first and the script could have been written, and the scenes shot, while the artists listened to it on their IPods.

Final Grade: C+


alison said...

that sounds about like what i was expecting based on the trailers. interesting fact that i recently read: george clooney wanted writing credit for the movie, but the writer's union wouldn't give it to him, so he withdrew from the union. can't remember where i read it, so take that with a grain of salt.

and it's too bad the football scenes aren't any good - that might have been enough to make me go see it.

Spirit of 73 said...

Withdrew from the union? Careful Mr. Liberal!

I was holding out hope for it, and would have held out more had I known that Clooney was directing. But his gift seems to be for more serious fare; good comedy, at least in this instance, escapes him.