Occasionally, the Box offers a sports movie review. Leatherheads opened Friday and this time I invited a genuine movie reviewer along. The idea is to see the film together, she writes a review, I write a review, no editing, no peeking, tack one review below the other, and turn it in.
Gayle Feyrer is the real movie reviewer. She’ll finish the column, follows is my take.
Leatherheads is a George Clooney movie and I hated it. The setup is promising — professional football in the 1920s. First, the good stuff. The sets are spot on. Train stations, clothes, hotels, football stadiums, city shots, speakeasies, locker rooms, uniforms, extras, all capture 1920s America beautifully.
Screenwriters Rick Reilly and Duncan Brantley worked for Sports Illustrated in the 1980s, and Brantley wrote a short piece about his experience in the current issue of SI. The pair began collaborating in 1986, 22 years before the film was released, a not unknown length of time between screenplay and production. Brantley’s sister was married to Steven Soderbergh, who had enough juice to walk the script into Casey Silver, then major domo at Universal Pictures. Again, not an unknown way of getting your script noticed. This is 1991.
Now comes the problem of selling an American-football movie to the rest of the world. The rest of the world (which might represent 40 percent or more of the film’s revenues), knows less, cares less about American football then we do about soccer. What to do?
Make a romantic comedy, in this instance, of the screwball 1930s variety, and use football as background. We have sassy, ambitious female reporter, Rosalind Russell/Katharine Hepburn/Renée Zellweger who meets charming, roguish, 40-something man, Cary Grant/Clark Gable/George Clooney. I hadn’t understood, until Friday, how good Rosalind, Katharine, Cary, and Clark were.
I’ll leave the plot summary to Gayle, if she writes one (no peeking, remember?). But, if you’ve read this far you probably know the story line. Follows is what killed the movie for me.
Clooney and Zellweger give their lines, make their 1930s comedic muggings, but everything reeks false, as if neither star believed their dialogue, or worse, had no idea what to do with it. They were acting and it shows. All movie long.
Now comes Gayle Feyrer, UCLA alumna, MFA out of Oregon. She’s been a topless dancer, painter, board-game developer, expat, fanzine publisher, and novelist (three books out, fourth in the oven). Add a lifetime of watching and writing about movies. You’re up Gayle.
* * *
Leatherheads succeeds in its attempt to evoke a charming old comedy of yesteryear. Unfortunately, it doesn’t match them, much less surpass them. Half of the time I was mildly entertained by its tongue-in-cheek humor. The other half of the time I was bored as the jokes fell as flat as the muddy footballers themselves.
The sense of period is probably the best thing about the film. With its funky clothes and great old cars there’s always something to amuse the eye. It also yielded an interesting historical tidbit. Having a black player on the team when WASPs ruled the sports world seemed a nice PC gesture but totally inaccurate. Checking it out, I found that there were two black players and one coach very early in the game. Nice to know.
George Clooney mugs his way through the role of Dodge Connelly with his usual easygoing charm. Score one for the Leatherheads. On the opposing side, there is Renée Zellweger. As Lexie Littleton, her dialogue delivery was suitably perky. Unfortunately, she’s an actress with limited facial expressions, the main one resembling a constipated Pekinese. As her lips pursed up yet again, I was sending silent pleas into the hereafter for Katie, Claudette, or Roz to come and take over the role of the feisty reporter. No such luck.
Carter Rutherford, played by John Krasinski, is Dodge Connelly’s romantic rival and hope for the future of pro football. The star player is a war hero to boot — supposedly. It’s Lexie’s job to flirt out the truth. Krasinski’s not in the same league with Jimmy Stewart, but he has a bit of that gangly charm. The plot wobbles because it wants you to like Carter, just not as much as you like Dodge. The “true” story behind his great war adventure turns out to be rather funny. To a modern sensibility, its absurdity is far better than a hyped-up heroism. Maybe in the ’20s there’d have been a great brouhaha over it all, but you can’t help but wonder if they wouldn’t have liked the guy even more.
Finally, nothing in Leatherheads works quite as well as it should. The supporting roles are okay but not really memorable. Clooney’s direction has a pretty good pace, but the mediocre plot and dialogue undermine his efforts. My favorite moment came early on. I really liked the voyeuristic cow.