Delay of Game Sidelines Leatherheads
What do gridiron talented college grads do after obtaining a diploma? They turn professional athlete and earn millions. But in 1925, fans of college football packed stadiums to watch players paying for their education and playing a game that made their school big bucks on Saturday.
Professional football was hardly more than assembling a rag tag bunch of miners, machinists and assembly line workers wanting to be paid for not growing up. That’s the premise underwhich “Leatherheads” sends a rag tag ragtime nostalgic tip of the hat to less complicated times without rules.
Director George Clooney doubling as aging pro icon Dodge Connolly approaches play for pay with the clever complicated scams of “The Sting” and the gender fiestyness of “His Girl Friday” or a sophisticated Katherine Hepburn comedy.
Seeking to avoid bankruptcy, Clooney’s character takes a clue from packed college stadiums and recruits a Princeton phenom and war hero Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) to turn pro, bringing his sizable audience of well wishers with him. Complicating the maneuver, the Chicago Tribune has sent a soft nosed reporter with a poison pen and great legs (Renee Zellweger) to woo a conscience clearing admission concerning his exploit of singlehandedly persuading a foxhole full of Germans to surrender.
Maintaining a faded almost sepia toned style of cinematography, “Leatherheads” morphs more than the hype and hysterics of heroes and celebrities. By turning loose Zellweger (sorry, no bare legs, girls wore thick hoisery then!) in the prudish Roaring ’20s, she ably adapts and smugly snarls at the lofty witticisms of Clooney. Pleasingly, the director could not resist a co-ed train loft scene complete with curtains for the upper and lower mattresses which harkens to a classic scene from Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” (Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert) or all-girl band traveling in drag conditions of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon (who joined Walter Matthau in the ’70s “Front Page” remake) .
Ultimately, Clooney and Zellweger can not approach the fiery continually wise-cracking and charismatic romantic sparks of even a sophisticated screwball comedy. Zellweger always clad in red or orange routinely zaps male/female innuendo with verbal dexterity and the touch of a vamp. Yet the age difference competition (Clooney v. Krasinski) for her heart mostly nibbles for unrequited flirtations, except for a romp in a speakeasy.
Populated with larger than life characters, though, “Leatherheads” does score an unexpected go against the grain touchdown with the ongoing “never heard of rules” attitude that applies beyond the unregulated gridiron’s trick plays.
We’re asked to accept lots of scripting fallacies ( Clooney spouts blazing sports stories off his head yet no one has offered him a regular JOB, an all night play fight, dull slipping on the muddy field) and frustration that Zellweger unleashed had the ammunition waiting for a side splitting cinematic send up, potentially on par with Barb Streisand’s “What’s Up Doc.” Clooney seems stuck with Ladies Home Journal comebacks until shaking the player persona for a coaching con artist.
In short, “Leatherheads” often limps on the sidelines for delay of game in its attempts to emulate period screwball romance comedies, but it’s an entertaining joust, just not a blow out.
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