His earnest but dull Leatherheads is a good-looking but boring fictional film about the rise of professional football in the 1920s, and everybody looks lost in it. Clooney strains for laughs: His timing is sloppy, and most of the humor feels stale and--even worse--ripped off.
As the film starts, college football is riding high on the popularity of Carter "Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski), a supposed World War I hero. He reportedly got an entire German battalion to surrender single-handedly, and Carter has translated his fame into endorsements of everything from shaving blades to cigarettes. Plucky journalist Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) is assigned with the task of exposing his lies, while football-team owner Jimmy "Dodge" Connelly (Clooney) looks to hire Carter and increase attendance.
This is the setup for muddy football games and listless screwball comedy; it's all an attempt to invoke period films, but it feels false and empty. Clooney gets the look almost right, but the script lacks bite. Quick verbal exchanges between characters try to emulate the likes of Clark Gable and Cary Grant, but those stars had great dialogue to deliver. The stuff the actors are saying in this piece is bland.
Carter and Dodge go into competition against one another for Lexie, but the dynamics don't work. Clooney often argues with the increasingly uninteresting Zellweger, who, in her first few minutes on screen, torpedoes any hope that the pair will have any fun together. Zellweger--wearing fancy hats and holding a cigarette just so--doesn't light up the screen in any way. She and Clooney have no screen chemistry, and Zellweger looks bored and confused. That's the same way the audience winds up feeling.
The film has moments of promise, and it gets off to a strong start, but the premise wears thin quickly. It begins to falter when Zellweger shows up. While Clooney and Krasinski are effortless and original, Zellweger is trying to be Claudette Colbert, and she's no Colbert.
When the movie attempts zany screwball comedy--like Dodge and Lexie donning cop uniforms, or Dodge and Lexie opening and closing curtains during heated exchanges--it feels forced. The banter between characters is normal, and then all of a sudden, it shifts into routines that feel lifted from Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. Clooney clearly loves the genre, but he's all wrong for it.
You know you're in trouble when the hackneyed characters have names like Curly, Big Gus and Suds. Suds is played by Stephen Root, who, along with Clooney, has frequented Coen brothers films. There's a little bit of the Coens' O Brother, Where Art Thou? in this movie, especially in a protracted scene in which Clooney and Krasinski engage in a fistfight. There are many moments when it feels like Clooney is trying to copy the patented Coen lunacy--making the film feel a bit fake.
In Clooney's defense, he's a director who clearly likes to challenge himself. His debut--and best--film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, was a brilliant and visually arresting film about Gong Show host Chuck Barris' alleged life as a CIA killer. Good Night, and Good Luck was a terrific period piece reliving the maverick television days of Edward R. Murrow.
Even though Leatherheads is a failure, it's worth remembering that great directors often take major missteps. Spielberg had 1941; Scorsese had New York, New York; and Coppola had Jack. Clooney needs to take a little nap, pick his next directorial project wisely and get back on track.
The Internet Movie Database lists a film called Suburbicon, penned by the Coen brothers, as his next possible directing job. That could be very interesting.