George Clooney’s spent much of the last decade grooming and honing his image as the last incarnation of old-Hollywood class; give him a lick of Brylcreem and a well-pressed suit and he’ll magically summon the dapper spirit of Cary Grant or Clark Gable.
So it’s little surprise that this throwback comedy expends much effort on placing him in a suitably authentic period setting. The great news is that it succeeds superbly at recreating the look, feel and flap of the Roaring 20s. The not-so-great news is that Leatherheads doesn’t quite meshes its mash-up of tones and genres into a fully satisfying whole.
Both star and director, Clooney plays Dodge Connelly, the passionate but past-it leader of the Duluth Bulldogs, an amateur American football team whose fortunes have gone the way of QPR. Losing team members as well as matches, he hatches a plan to recruit war hero and Princeton star Bullet Rutherford (John Krasinski from the US version of The Office), the nation’s biggest and best-loved college player. Only thing is, not everyone believes Bullet is quite the golden boy he claims to be. Dispatched to scoop the truth, reporter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger) is diverted from her dirt-digging by the amorous attentions of both the older Dodge and the younger Bullet.
This is not, of course, Clooney’s first cinematic time-warp to a bygone era. Already the auteur-actor has looked at home in 50s corporate America (his last directorial opus, Good Night, And Good Luck), 40s Berlin (The Good German) and the Depression-era Deep South (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). But slipping back another decade has caused him to wobble. On either side of the camera, he seems unsure whether to peg Leatherheads as a historical drama, old-time romcom or full-blown screwball romp.
As it is, he’s attempted to pull off all three at once. The screwball stuff feels forced at times, a game Clooney gurning with all the energy he can muster to offset the structural shortcomings. As a romcom, there’s less sizzle than you’d expect between George and Renee given their personal history, but they do trade some amusingly barbed banter. Meanwhile, the birth of professional football makes for a sharp dramatic hook, yet it’s hard to give full attention to the sports-history lesson when there are so many pressing, distracting questions: Is Bullet a war hero? Is he a fraud? And do we really care all that much?
The mudbath climax leaves the biggest poser of all: who is Leatherheads’ audience? If you’re seduced by the romantic triangle, you’ll be irked by the many football plays. If you’re a sports fan, you’ll be as interested in Zellweger getting flirty with the boys as you would be in a half-time gig by Posh. On the other foot, if you’d rather see an ambitious moviemaker aim higher and smarter than the fuck-joke tedium of Good Luck Chuck and its sticky ilk, then take a punt.
Is it a romantic comedy? A sporting history lesson? A homage to Howard Hawks? It's all three. Not the touchdown we expected after Good Night, And Good Luck, but still enough style, sophistication and movie-love to save Clooney from a kicking.