Leatherheads is one of those movies that makes you want to slap the armrests of your theater seat. Hereís a film that has a great cast, a fantastic setting, and some sparkling dialogue, yet you canít help wishing that it was better than it is. A number of filmmakers (including Jon Favreau) have tried to bring this long-gestating tale to the screen over the years, but were unable to. George Clooney finally succeeded. As Good Night, and Good Luck proved, heís a talented director, which makes it somewhat surprising to see how unfocused Leatherheads is.
Part of the problem is that the plot is overcomplicated. Iím going to simplify it; youíll have to trust me that things donít play as smoothly as I will describe them. Set in 1925, Clooney portrays Dodge Connelly, a pro football player trying to bring some respectability to the sport. (Apparently, pro ball was considered inferior to college ball back then. Maybe sports fans already know that; not being one, I didnít.) When his team is shut down due to lack of fan support, Dodge gets the idea to revive it by recruiting Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), a popular college player who has become something of a star after allegedly getting an entire German troop to surrender in WWI. A deal is struck, and Carter becomes an official member of the Duluth Bulldogs.
However, a sports reporter named Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger) is sent to investigate claims that Carterís war heroics have been greatly exaggerated. She sidles up to him and uses her feminine wiles to get him to let down his guard. The footballer becomes sweet on her, but so does Dodge, who takes serious interest in what Lexie is poking around for. He wants to make sure no one messes with the teamís star player. When Dodge and Carter become romantic rivals, though, all bets are off.
There are really three parts to Leatherheads: the story of pro football coming into its own, the Dodge/Carter/Lexie romantic triangle, and the possibility of Carter being exposed as a false hero. Now, on the surface, it sounds like these things could combine to make a really smart, multi-layered movie. And they could have. Thereís nothing about these three elements that is inherently contradictory. Itís just that the film doesnít play out harmoniously. Clooney (who did an uncredited rewrite in addition to directing) never figures out how to combine them into a cohesive whole.
Things start off promisingly. The early scenes, showing the fly-by-night nature of 1920ís pro football, are both funny and energetic. Thereís also some good old-fashioned snappy patter between Dodge and Lexie; you sense that, in some way, Leatherheads might successfully emulate the sound and feel of a classic screwball romantic comedy. The introduction of Carter seems like itís going to add some dimension to the love triangle.
About a third of the way through, things start to become discombobulated. Each of those three sections has its own distinct tone, and because the story shifts back and forth among them, it has the subsequent effect of making it feel like the overall tone is inconsistent. One minute, the film is a screwball romance, the next itís veering into slapstick, and then itís trying to make a semi-serious statement about societyís need for a hero during wartime. Every time the emphasis shifts, the tone shifts with it. You end up feeling like the movie is all over the map. None of these sections are bad in and of themselves; they simply havenít been combined well. Itís kind of like watching three separate movies instead of just one.
One way things could have gelled better would be to have developed the romances a little more. Clooney has so many things on his plate that he ends up rushing some of them. The way Carter and Dodge both fall for Lexie is unconvincing, and since the storyís payoff is dependent on us believing that both men are madly in love with her, it never achieves any kind of impact. Some extra football scenes in the middle might also have been beneficial. For a movie thatís ostensibly about football, the entire mid-section is football-free. Because we donít really see much of Carter on the field, his potential fall from grace doesnít hit home the way it should.
Having said all that, I feel compelled to add that Leatherheads gets a lot of things right. Clooney, Zellweger, and Krasinski are all good in their roles. There are some witty lines of dialogue, some laughs, and an overall sense of good cheer in the movie. And individually, any of the three major subplots could have been turned into a perfectly satisfying movie. They also could have been meshed into something really special. It wouldnít be at all accurate to say that I disliked Leatherheads; I simply found myself kind of stunned that all the good stuff didnít somehow add up to more.
I guess the thing I liked most was just that the film tried to do something different. This is an honorable attempt at making an ambitious, intelligent picture. In spite of the flaws, there was something refreshing about Clooneyís attempt to give us a movie that stands out from all other recent movies. Iíve got nothing but respect for the effort and for the things that work. But man, was I hoping to love Leatherheads, and I didnít.
( 1/2 out of four)
Leatherheads is rated PG-13 for brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Leatherheads
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