Friday, April 4, 2008

Football Follies

Time for another film review. And a rare timely one at that. Let's take a look at today's brand new film ...

Leatherheads (d. George Clooney)

In the early part of the previous century, professional athletics weren't the bastions of integrity and sportsmanship that they are today. Nope. Back then, sports were often seedy undertakings, full of cheating and brawling. We've certainly come a long way.

Sarcasm.

George Clooney's new film Leatherheads is set amidst the rough and tumble of the NFL's nascent period, a time when the professional game was viewed as something akin to pro wrestling or maybe "American Gladiators" today; an explosion of violence vaguely resembling an actual athletic contest. Compared to the high-tech spectacle of the modern NFL, the game was quaint and low rent and would not be recognizable as "football" to modern eyes.

It was played in small towns like Portsmouth, Akron, Canton and Decatur. Only after the money started flowing would the New Yorks and Philadelphias of the world field their franchises. Once they did, the small towns were mostly squeezed out.

It is in that transitional time that we encounter the Duluth Bulldogs (trivia: in real life, the Duluth club had the politically and geographically incorrect name "The Eskimos") and their aging star and de facto leader Dodge Connelly, played by the director himself. The Bulldogs are on the verge of economic collapse when Dodge sees his chance to save the franchise by signing the nation's hottest college player -- and a war hero to boot -- Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski from TV's "The Office").

The story parallels the true tale of Red Grange and his entry into the NFL after legendary college football stardom, which is credited with having legitimized the pro game.

However, to the best of my knowledge, there's no real-world analog for Roxy Hart -- excuse me -- Lexie Littleton, Renee Zellweger's character, a reporter out to prove that Carter's war heroism is a sham. Lexie steps right out of movies as old as His Girl Friday, or as recent as The Hudsucker Proxy, a fast-talking, hard-nosed gal who don't take no guff from nobody, see?

I wonder if the right guy could melt her icy heart. Wonder, wonder.

Leatherheads was written by Rick Reilly and Duncan Brantley, both of whom come from a sports background. They clearly know their way around the material on the field, as well as the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing. What they don't know is adult human interaction. The film wants the scenes between Clooney and Zellweger to evoke classic screwball comedy, something Cary Grant and Irene Dunne might have performed, or Tracy and Hepburn. But the lines are intermittently clever, at best (one suspects the actors may have been punching up their own dialogue on the set), and the romantic spark never truly kindles.

Meanwhile, the more satirical football scenes are well researched, but flat. I couldn't help but wish for the madcap abandon of Slap Shot, another film about an aging athlete gleefully urging his team to break the rules. Much is made about the change in football between the early days and the time after all the new rules are instated, but as it plays on the screen, there's no discernible difference. Where are the Hanson brothers when you need them?

Director Clooney can never quite get Actor Clooney to settle on a single tone for his performance, either. With Krasinski, he plays things relatively straight; but with Zellweger, he's all mannerisms and tics. It's probably not a coincidence that his better directing efforts (Good Night and Good Luck and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) had him turning over the lead roles to others.

It's too bad. The world of early pro football is rife with comedic possibilities, but Leatherheads can't quite seem to pick up that ball and run with it.

2 stars.

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