LEATHERHEADS and Screwballs

Let me get one thing out of the way right now - I like George Clooney. I more-than-like him, and have since his television days. He's a great Hollywood talent, often compared to Cary Grant and Clark Gable with his screen presence and charisma, and he's become a rather talented director behind the camera as well, with CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND and GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK. His latest film, LEATHERHEADS pulls together all of his personae up front and center, directing the movie and hamming it up in traditional screwball fashion on-screen as well.

The film tells the story of Dodge Connelly, an aging pro-footballer intent on rescuing his team, the Duluth Bulldogs, as well as the whole of professional football as an institution, from financial ruin in 1925. In order to do so, he enlists superstar college player and war hero Carter Rutherford, who signs on to play for Duluth and begins packing the stadiums based solely on his popularity. Meanwhile, hotshot reporter Lexi Littleton is on the trail of Rutherford, intent on uncovering the truth about what really happened in the war and exposing him as a phony. A love triangle of sorts develops between the three of them, though there's never really any question as to who will win the girl (Clooney plays the Cary Grant character, after all), and it feels a bit underdeveloped toward the end. Of course, this being a film that uses the screwball antics and romances of films like THE PHILADELPHIA STORY and TWENTIETH CENTURY as its template, that really isn't a harsh criticism as much as an observation. The shortness on the romance is typical of the genre's conventions.

As a pure screwball comedy, LEATHERHEADS shines, with some whip-smart dialogue and hilarious physical comedy. Clooney, Renee Zellweger and John Krasinski are all so good at mugging and other inherent zaniness, it's hard to not believe in the film's own little 1920s universe. That being said, however, the film does not run on all cylinders all the time. As a sports comedy, it's a bit of a bore, though I feel this is somewhat intentional. The story is the standard underdog/comeback one that has been seen countless times, but Clooney wisely keeps the final game gridlocked, creating a commentary on how the new-found rules and regulations that comes with respectability and money make football completely boring that would otherwise be completely nonexistent.

Despite any negative feelings I may have, I still found a lot to admire, and look forward to watching it again. It's a silly screwball comedy about the rise of professional football and the ensuing boredom that comes with it. The cast has great chemistry, and Clooney as a director continues to prove that he knows his stuff. Of his three films, this may be his smaller, minor classic, but it's a pure pleasure and a classic nonetheless.