Saturday, April 5, 2008

Out with the new, in with the old

Leatherheads, the latest directorial outing of George Clooney, has a great affection for the lush period setting of 1920's Americana and does a solid job of garnering audience affection but offers few real delights. It is a charming, extremely well acted motion picture but any chance at greatness is offset by tonal uncertainty and a general lack of momentum. I've mentioned before on the site my enormous reverence for the classic screwball comedies of the thirties and forties which elevated snappy banter, pratfalls and farcical fumbling to an artform, Clooney's comedy tries and often connects, but the speed and timing aren't where they need to be. To horrifically mix sports metaphors the film should be a homerun and instead bunts a single.

Clooney plays the coach/press agent/quarterback of the Duluth Bulldogs, Dodge Connelly. Both Connelly and his team are getting on in years. Professional football, a game consigned to muddy fields attended by few spectators, the game is fun for the players but a bit of a joke. This is in stark contrast to the world of college football where recently returned all-American war veteran Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski) is drawing huge crowds. Rutherford in turn is being trailed by feisty reporter Lexie Littleton (Rene Zellwegger) who's editor suspects that anyone as clean-cut as Rutherford has something to hide. Lexie isn't the only one with an eye on Rutherford, Connelly wants him for the Bulldogs and wants his legitimacy for professional football. With all these elements in place a love-triangle develops between our three attractive leads.
Leatherheads is the kind of film that's easy to like but difficult to love, but that's certainly not because of it's performances. Clooney is spectacular showing off that it's not just the Coens who can harness his Gable-meets-Grant too smooth operator persona. He shows that even at his "advanced age" a great proclivity for physical comedy, especially in his marvelous reaction shots. Kransinski proves himself just as adept at playing an earnest All-American Van Helfin type as well as he is in the role of hipster icon. Zellwegger too is in fine form though this is hardly surprising as she's tackled this sort of material before in Down with Love and Chicago. Clooney, being the game director he is, fills the screen with all sorts of rock solid character actors including Stephen Root, Jonathan Pryce, Max Casella, Marian Seldes, Peter Gerety (Judge Phelan for you Wire fans out there) and even his writing partner Grant Heslov. All are welcome presences and help nicely fill out the edges of the film.
Being this is a sports movie there isn't much doubt as to what direction the film will go but it takes it's time getting there. Along the way Connelly realizes that bringing legitamacy to football may be profitable but it's killing the fun that he once had. Clooney revels in showing off fully-uniformed, long-skirted cheerleaders and referees fumbling for newly written rule books. While Clooney the actor loves the easy pace of the comedy and longs for the good old days of the game, Clooney the director loves the good old days of film (as his sepia toned transitions and lush Randy Newman score support) where Cary Grant and Rosalind Russel traded barbs and the Keystone cops ran amok. Clooney relishes in showing off the characters and their world and he is well aided by DP Newton Thomas Siegel. He loves to show his characters playing, flirting, scheming and fleeing but in the midst of his lingering shots of all this Clooney the storyteller fumbles.
All the great screwball comedies share a sense of urgency. Hildy must stop an execution in His Girl Friday, David is desperately searching for his interclostal clavicle in Bringing Up Baby and Traci Lords wedding must be stopped by SOMEBODY in The Philadelphia Story. The bottom line is the pace tends to get picked up when a fire is lit under their ass. Clooney's films has no great motivator. The characters just seem to casually move along even in their banter. It's frustrating to think that scenes such as Lexie discovering Connelly in her train bearth after hours could get more laughs if Clooney just goosed the tempo a bit. The other problem is the tone. The film doesn't balance it's three competing poles particularly well; the romance, the fond nostalgic look back at football and the screwball comedy. Usually the romance takes precedence but it then gets interrupted by one of the other two and the film loses it's grounding. For all its problems Leatherheads scores but it could've benefited from getting to the zone a little faster.

1 comment:

Football Chick said...

Great review Rami, you're gettin pretty damn good at this ...