George, George, George of the Fumble

Leatherheads Poster

Leatherheads” has had a long a storied journey to the big screen, and has mutated into several incarnations in the process.

It was once envisioned to be a historically accurate account of football’s earliest innovators, a blood-and-mud saga of gridiron gladiators, and a comedic take on colorful pigskin pioneers.It arrives in theaters as a screwball comedy throwback – cobbled together  with romantic subplots, early growing pains of the game, and fictional glimpses into the lives of the sport’s bruising brotherhood.

The result is a curious mix that is overstuffed with half-planned protractions of what might have been if director/star George Clooney had remained focused not on merely gaining yardage with small hand-offs of laughter, but on just where the goal line of his film was.

Not screwy enough for screwball, not hard-hitting enough for a sports picture, and far-too-slight as a commentary on the souring of the game with all its “rules” and “regulations,” “Leatherheads merely scrambles in scene after scene, wearily winding down the clock.

Clooney plays Dodge Connelly, the aging coach and player of the amateur Duluth Bulldogs, one of the last holdouts in a rapidly diminishing field of football teams in 1925.In order to boost sales and escape working in “the real world,”

Connelly concocts a plan to enlist a star athlete who has returned from World War I a hero and whose ubiquitous visage is pimped out on more products than Michael Jordan is his prime.

But there is a cloud that follows this young hero, Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford (played by “The Office’s” John Krasinski), as his military heroics might not be all that it appears.

Enter Lexie Littleton (played by perma-puckering Renee Zellweger), a hard-edged moll who’s the ace reporter for the local paper intent on cracking the shell of this “Bullet.” Her presence sets up a rather static love triangle between her, the young rising star and the aging Donnelly.

While there are moments of back-and-forth banter, a la “Philadelphia Story,” little of it lands with the impact Grant and Hepburn so successfully accomplished decades ago.

The chemistry between its romantic leads is so week and predictable, it would be eclipsed by a grade school science fair.

After veering from ensemble action comedy to bickering romance, the film takes yet another curious detour in its final act to comment on American values, the country’s need for heroes and how the formality of regulated sports drains the fun out of the game.

Clooney has proven himself sure-footed when he’s behind the camera in his two previous outings, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.”  But here, he feels completely off balance. It has moments of artistic flourish, but it gets dogpiled under the heft of so many extra slender subplots.

In front of the lens, he’s as easygoing as ever, slightly summoning a variation on his deft comedic work in “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” and he takes more than a few good-natured jabs at his age, but he can do little to extract much from co-stars Zellweger and Krazinski, who seem unable to establish their footing from one scene to the next.

“Leatherheads,” though infinitely more competent a film, shares much with Will Ferrell’s latest amateur-to-pro sports comedy, “Semi-Pro,” in which it suffers from jarring tonal shifts that ultimately hobble it at its knees.

It’s light enough to keep audiences occupied with slight smirks, but like the players on the soggy field in the film’s final game, “Leatherheads” becomes too muddied with plot that we are really unable to distinguish just who these people are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

~ by usesoapfilm on April 7, 2008.

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