Sports movies can sometimes be hit and miss. For every The Natural, there’s a Gridiron Gang. So it was something of a gamble for George Clooney to choose a sports movie for his follow up to critically acclaimed Good Night And Good Luck. But his latest directorial outing, Leatherheads, isn’t your traditional sporting movie. Sure, it features the inevitable high-tension sporting moment at the climax of the film, but this is more a screwball comedy than a sports movie.
Leatherheads takes place in 1925, at the birth of what is now the National Football League. The popularity of the sport is confined to the college leagues, with the professional league being played out in farmers’ fields with little attendance, and even less money. It’s a far cry from the multi-billion dollar industry the NFL is today. Dodge Connolly is struggling to keep the league together, with teams folding all over the country and competitive games for his team, the Duluth Bulldogs disappearing. In a last-ditch effort to keep his dream alive, Connolly enlists the help of a college player, Carter Rutherford, a war-hero and celebrity. With Ritherford on his team, the league looks like it could become something big. But plucky reporter, Lexie Littleton is digging deep into Rutherford’s past. His war-hero status is under scrutiny, and with the success of this new league hinging on Rutherford’s celebrity, things could all go very wrong for Dodge Connolly’s new professional league.
George Clooney hit a whole new level of filmmaking prowess when he released Good Night And Good Luck in 2005. The film was steeped in gravitas, and earned quite a few Oscar nods as a result. It was hard-hitting stuff. Leatherheads is quite the opposite of the previous film. It’s light, fluffy fare, purely for entertainment. That’s not to say there aren’t any ‘issues’ to be dealt with in the film. There is the question of Carter Rutherford’s celebrity. While it’s played for comedy at times, the question of what makes a hero, and why heroes are important for society is brought up. Rutherford’s legend has brought him a lot of success, but at the same time, is truth sometimes glossed over in order to create heroes which make the country look good. But while this is one of the themes of the film, it doesn’t get in the way of the fact that this film is a comedy.
Clooney is as much at home in front of the camera as he is behind it. As we saw in O Brother, Where Art Thou, Clooney does have a talent for comedy, and that’s clear again here. The roles of Dodge Connolly and Ulysses Everett McGill aren’t a million miles apart. They’re both scoundrels. They’re both slick and tend to break the rules. So by that rationale, Clooney’s almost played this role before. But he does it well, and is very entertaining in his pratfalls. Playing against Clooney is Renee Zellweger as Lexie Littleton. It’s pretty clear she’s invoking the spirit of Katherine Hepburn for the role. And while she’s got (to coin a phrase from the time) plenty of moxie, there’s something a little irritating about her character. I don’t know if it lies in the role or the performance, but some of the time I wished the film would get back to the comedy between Clooney and John Krasinski as Carter Rutherford. Krasiniski’s no stranger to comedy, due to his role in the American version of The Office. But while he plays the most likable guy in that show, his character here is less likable and a little more smarmy. But Krasinski pulls this off without too much bother, and during once scene in a hotel lobby, he shows he’s got the comic skills to play against Clooney.
While Leatherheads will not have the same impact as Good Night, And Good Luck had for Clooney’s career, it’s still a decent enough watch. The style and soundtrack of the film really hark back to the 1920’s era, and the subject matter, and the birth of the NFL provide some interesting moments. It’s not the greatest comedy of all time, but it’s an entertaining two hours none the less.