Review: Leatherheads

No touchdown

There’s a certain amount of false advertising in the trailers for Leatherheads, the new George Clooney/Renée Zellweger movie set in the early days of professional American football. The trailers suggest it’s a rom-com. Yet there’s not much romance and there’s not much comedy.

It has its moments, don’t get me wrong, but ultimately this is a drama, with a touch of comedy and a touch of romance. And it’s a reasonably worthwhile drama, because even if the subject matter isn’t all that interesting, especially for a UK audience, the style of the film and its ‘homage-matter’ will appeal to anyone who’s ever watched an old black and white movie.

A romantic comedy set against the backdrop of America’s nascent pro-football league in 1925. Dodge Connolly, a charming, brash football hero, is determined to guide his team from bar brawls to packed stadiums. But after the players lose their sponsor and the entire league faces certain collapse, Dodge convinces a college football star to join his ragtag ranks. The captain hopes his latest move will help the struggling sport finally capture the country’s attention.

Welcome to the team Carter Rutherford, America’s favorite son. A golden-boy war hero who single-handedly forced multiple German soldiers to surrender in WWI, Carter has dashing good looks and unparalleled speed on the field. This new champ is almost too good to be true, and Lexie Littleton aims to prove that’s the case. A cub journalist playing in the big leagues, Lexie is a spitfire newswoman who suspects there are holes in Carter’s war story. But while she digs, the two teammates start to become serious off-field rivals for her fickle affections.

Is it any good?
As a romantic comedy, it’s pretty poor. There’s little spark between Clooney and Zellwegger, no matter what His Girl Friday dialogue gets thrown their way. Clooney gives a good performance – his usual one – as a smart, vulnerable guy not afraid to open himself up to make a play for the girl; as always with Zellwegger, it’s all about the accent and she gives a good go at a sort of Dorothy Parker. All the same, Zellwegger’s cub reporter doesn’t come across as particularly interesting or dynamic. There’s some comedy, some of which is funny but it mostly fails to amuse.

It’s more interesting as a drama and an homage. At this level, the characters are smart, interesting, have good lines and the writers have something to say about journalism, heroism, women’s lot at the time, sport and growing old – with Clooney frequently referred to as ‘grandpa’ or ‘old man’. I’m less than convinced about its historical authenticity, at least with regard to the attitudes of the times which seem suspiciously open minded and laissez faire for 1925. But it’s more of a nod to the general 1910-1950 period of movie-making than a true social documentary.

All the same, as an homage, the film is something of a blunderbuss, making nods to screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s, the Keystone Cops movies of the 1910s and just about anything else black and white it can think of. And with Clooney’s directorial style owing so much to Steven Soderbergh, you’ll have constant Out of Sight flashbacks whenever Clooney tries to depict romance and intimacy.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll come out of the movie feeling a little sad: sad that many people won’t get the references any more because they’ve never had the opportunity to see those films from the good old days. And those of us who have are pretty much a dying breed anyway – this will be, more or less, the last chance for anyone to make a movie like this and expect people to just ‘get’ it.

Probably not worth spending your money on if you’re not into old movies and are just looking for a date movie/rom-com – more something to be admired for what it’s trying to do or if you fancy a nostalgia-fest.

Here’s a YouTube trailer