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Wednesday, April 2, 2008 07:05 am

A failure to execute

Leatherheads knows the comedy playbook but can’t execute laughs

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Leatherheads Running time 1:53 Rated PG-13 ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East
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Leatherheads Running time 1:53 Rated PG-13 ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East

You have to give George Clooney credit. As an actor and director, he seems eager to take on anything. Whether it’s a black-and-white docudrama about one of America’s most shameful eras (Good Night, and Good Luck) or a quirky pseudobiography (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) or edgy Hollywood fare (Michael Clayton), the performer’s mission to not be pigeonholed seems to be a success. Next on the docket is Leatherheads, a screwball comedy from another era that tries not only to rekindle the sort of rat-a-tat-tat romance that helped make Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday classics but also to point out that the media was just as corrupt in the 1920s as it was in the ’50s or is today. (You think Clooney has a bone to pick here?) Oh, and it has football, too. Therein lies the problem with Leatherheads — it has too many fish to fry, and most of them come out half-done. Clooney knows his Hollywood history and obviously has a love of the social comedies of Capra, Sturges, and Hawks. But even though he knows that films of this sort require breakneck pacing; a flawed, conflicted hero; antagonistic sparks between the two romantic leads; and a climax buoyed by redemption, he’s not so adept at putting these elements on the screen convincingly. Clooney knows these cinematic plays; he just can’t successfully run them all.
The time is the mid-1920s. The economy is booming, and Jimmy “Dodge” Connelly (Clooney) wants to get his mitts on some of the nation’s disposable income by turning professional football into a national pastime. His players aren’t so bright, but they have gumption — which counts for little when the burgeoning enterprise finds itself in jeopardy after losing its sponsor. However, Connelly has a plan, and that’s to sign Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), who not only earns his nickname, “the Bullet,” each time he steps on the field but is still basking in the media spotlight trained on him after he pulled a Sgt. York in Germany. It’s a great story — so good, in fact, that reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) can’t help thinking he’s not on the up-and-up. She does a little snooping and finds that Rutherford may not be all he seems, prompting Connelly to do his best to get her off his rookie’s tail. One could see this story working with Capra at the helm and Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, and Van Johnson in the leads. Though the three performers here do their level best to fill those stars’ shoes, they simply aren’t up to the task. There’s a degree of modernity that they simply can’t shake; it’s as if they’re consciously playing these roles as archetypes rather than fully rendered human beings. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell may have bickered and yelled at each other a mile a minute in Friday, but they also let you know they cared for each other and had the same hopes and fears about love and success that the audience did. That’s missing here; the acting seems forced and the chemistry, particularly between Clooney and Zellweger, is lacking. Equally troublesome is the ungainly script, written by Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly. Had they simply focused on the early days of professional football, a subject that had, surprisingly, not yet been covered in the movies (The Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers doesn’t count), then the laughs would have been plentiful and the story compelling. The scenes on the gridiron pop, but the romantic moments fizzle as a result of dull dialogue and the media roasting is a bit overdone. Some judicious cutting would have helped mask the script’s shortcomings. Leatherheads winds up being nothing more than an elaborate game plan that fails to live up to its potential.
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