After several months of crap being shoveled into theaters at the audience's expense, I was excited to see Leatherheads arrive. An old school football movie starring George Clooney and Jim from The Office? How could you go wrong?
Unfortunately, Leatherheads is not all that great. It's not bad - and at times it's funny - but it's just not that great. After the very good Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney's third directorial piece lacks the edge that could have made it something special. All of the pieces are there: a talented cast, a great setting and a neat concept, but the movie misses the mark.
First off, the story isn't nearly as innocent and lightweight as I was expected. Clooney and writers Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly make the mistake of incorporating legal proceedings and scandal into their movie. Unless the movie is strictly about lawyers, it is an absolute error of judgment to build those kinds of things into a comedy. A few films have pulled it off, but very few, and Leatherheads isn't nearly good enough to do so.
What's the problem? John Krasinski (Jim from The Office) is portrayed as a good guy in the previews, but ultimately he ends up being a shady character in the film. Maybe it's tough for me to view Jim as shady, but more so the problem is that the writers don't develop his character enough to take him one way or another. He's not particularly likable, but he's hard to hate, too. Gray characters are fine in dramas, but in comedies, especially sports comedies, I like my villains defined. If you're going to make him bad, make him really bad. Ultimately, Krasinski's secrets wind up in court and some other informal proceedings, and that's not just what I paid money to see.
I bought a ticket to laugh, see football, and laugh some more. Clooney does a good job of making the film look and feel as vintage as possible. The movie is goofy and contains lots of witty dialogue. Clooney, the actor, does a very good job as the charming, likable, rough-around-the-edges, James Stewart-esque hero. But, ultimately, the movie lacks the laughs and sports that will sell over its target audience. The comedy is there, but just not consistent enough. Clooney, and the screenplay, seem to lose focus at times and the movie wanders, offering several stretches where things are pretty dull. Furthermore, there is very little real football in the movie. If Leatherheads is essentially about the beginning of the NFL, Clooney really misses the mark. His character refers to all of these trick plays that are becoming prohibited, yet Clooney never shows them. Hell, do a montage of all the silly plays for all I care, but show them! And again, the lack of a clearly defined villain - and the fact that very few touchdowns are scored - makes the final showdown disappointing.
I'll also note that even though I don't like Renee Zellweger and feel she's extremely overrated, she is right for the part. She has the look of a 1920's woman, and has the personality to back up her fiery character.
Leatherheads has its moments, but isn't consistent enough to make it worth it. Clooney could have had an easy touchdown with this story, but thanks to a screenplay that focuses too much on individual moments and too little on the overall picture, he fumbles in the red zone.
Review by Robert Bell (C)
It's no fun to play by the rules; or so George Clooney would have us believe. More glib then irreverent, this is an insight, which has historically pleased moviegoers who root for underdogs that buck tradition. What is often overlooked when pointing out the follies of rules and systems, are the inherent reasons why they exist in the first place. Outside of the easily defined "good" & "evil" confines of a Disney film, structured systems are rarely created for the sole purpose of alienating or disenchanting people; they tend to stem from an observed need or hazardous gap.
Leatherheads, explores the passionless nature of rules, while integrating notions of the mythical American Hero; suggesting that the unsavoury truths of this world are what destroy childlike idealism and bliss. It simplistically pleads that white lies and the defiance of structure will lead to playful amusement and pleasure.
On the surface, the film delves more into screwball comedy antics, the legitimization of football and a quirky power-struggle love story surrounding a fallen American hero. It succeeds for the most part, featuring some clever wordplay and sufficiently zany antics, but crams in too many ideas and diversions to maintain a consistent tone.
Dodge Connelly (George Clooney) plays in a nascent football league that is in danger of crumbling following the loss of their sponsor. With little trade skills, he decides to recruit war hero/college sensation Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) in an effort to legitimize the sport.
Meanwhile, the plucky, self-important Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellwegger) is writing a piece on Rutherford in an effort to boost her career. Using her feminine wiles she finds out that the war hero is actually living a lie. She also manages to spark the attention of Dodge who desperately wants to get into her bloomers.
With Leatherheads, Clooney has fashioned himself a respectable old school screwball comedy; painting himself Cary Grant. The quick-witted word-wars between the leads are well handled and fun, if smug. What becomes problematic is the constantly shifting tone; light-hearted verbal spars give way to melodramatic messages, which give way to over the top kookiness—thank John Krasinski and his goofy faces while puttin' up his dukes. It leaves the audience shifting between analysis and escapist entertainment without successful delivering either. Hijinks are never fully embraced and the message is handled with little insight.
Chemistry and consistency are some other issues here. Zellwegger and Clooney each deliver decent (if relatively one-note) performances, embracing the dialogue and scenery, but never seem particularly keen on each other; even when making out. Zellwegger sparks greater chemistry when sharing the screen with Krasinski, whose wide-eyed innocence connects well with her cynical optimism. While Krasinski is effective when conveying his naïve tendencies, he occasionally dips into stagey overacting, which conflicts with the other performers on screen.
On the other hand, the film is gorgeous. Production design, costumes and art direction are all top-notch, giving the film a rusty hue, further propelling the audience into the era.
Leatherheads is a decent, if uninspiring, film. It aims to be a good old time at the movies with a powerful message, but winds up being only mildly entertaining and offering oversimplifications. One can only assume why Clooney would want to make a movie, which ultimately suggests that the cultural climate is a better place when celebrities live a white lie.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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