Some movies just scream out “Love me! I need you to love me!” Watching a comedy that falls into this trap is grossly disappointing. Not only do the vast majority of the jokes tend to fall flat, but the performances, which are meant to be ingratiating, prove little more than grating. One of the most recent Hollywood films to fall into this trap, Leatherheads, arrived on DVD this week.
A period piece that plays out in the 1920s, the film stars and is directed by George Clooney. The story follows Jimmy 'Dodge' Connelly (Clooney) as he tries his best to turn professional football into a major sport instead of a minor attraction. His plan is relatively simple: collegiate football is hugely popular so by recruiting the game's biggest star and a hero of World War I, Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), Connelly believes that professional football will become popular as well. When he is promised a significant amount of the box office take, Rutherford – or more precisely his leech of an agent, C.C. Frazier (Jonathan Pryce) – accepts Connelly's offer.
Connelly's troubles don't end there, however, as a newspaper reporter, Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), is trying to find corroboration for a tip she received that Carter's status as a war hero is undeserved. As Lexie pursues her story, Connelly and Carter pursue her, and both pursue dreams of football, and financial, glory.
The film not only takes place over a half-century ago, it also attempts to revive a style of comedy – screwball comedy – that was popular over a half-century ago. Leatherheads certainly attempts to infuse itself with elements of screwball comedy — there are attempts at witty repartee and slapstick, and the film certainly revolves around courtship — but all of these elements fall exceedingly flat. Virtually no joke in the film is funny, the “witty repartee” more often than not lacks any form of wit, and the courtship is both obvious in where it is heading and wholly unbelievable.
The three leads in the movie – Clooney, Krasinski, and Zellweger – are all hugely talented and have all performed far better in comedic roles in the past. Krasinki's performance is the best of the three, and much of that is due to the fact that his character is the most strait-laced. His main job is to be young and earnest and to let everything else happen around and to him. It was not his fault that he was made into a war hero, he can't help it if everyone in the country wants to see him play ball, and he's not orchestrating the various advertising campaigns that picture him. All of that is being done for and to him. He is just young, earnest Jim from The Office, except here he doesn't play as many practical jokes and can catch a football. Jim may be funnier than Carter, but the two are very similar.
Clooney and Zellweger have also played similar roles to the ones they have here, and to far greater effect. They have both proven themselves capable of playing fun, clever film leads, and thus their not doing so here is a disappointment. Clooney's Dodge Connelly spends far too much time mugging for the camera and those around him, trying to get by on his movie star looks and smile. Without much of a script behind him however, his looks and smile only carry him so far and the same is true for Zellweger.
In the end, there are better football movies, better George Clooney movies, better Renée Zellweger films, better romantic comedies, and better examples of the screwball comedy genre. And, while the film certainly wants us to love it, there is little here to truly allow it to endear itself to an audience. Looking at the basic notion of the film and its cast, one expects much more than what ends up on the screen.
The DVD release of Leatherheads features the usual assortment of deleted scenes, a feature commentary with Clooney and producer Grant Heslov and making-of featurettes. The look at the effects sequences is enlightening, particularly with its split screen between the original footage and final look at the film, but the feature itself disappoints so greatly that I can't imagine many people will want to watch how it was made.