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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Three Stooges Mug Howard Hawks on the Gridiron!
by John P. McCarthy

The flimsy headgear worn by football players in the 1920s provided little protection from injury. Does that explain how the sepia-tinged Leatherheads came to be so slaphappy? Sure, the game was brutal back then -- sorely in need of rules, proper helmets and fans -- but that's no excuse for dumbing-it down to the level of a "Three Stooges" short subject, minus the timing.

No, star George Clooney must have sustained a concussion prior to filming, before he made the decision to direct himself. There are exceptions to the rule that actors should avoid directing themselves. Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck is one of them; Leatherheads is not. 

It would take a deft, more experienced hand to meld dunderheaded jock humor and sophisticated screwball comedy. NFL legend George Halas and director Howard Hawks are both spinning in their graves. Only the team behind Semi-Pro is laughing.

Halas -- player-coach for the Chicago Bears during the era this picture takes place -- might have sympathized with Clooney's character Dodge Connolly, an older ballplayer intent on salvaging his career and the fortunes of his Decatur Bulldogs. With franchises folding left and right, Dodge convinces a World War I hero and Princeton University football sensation Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) to join the squad, thereby helping to legitimize the nascent league and put fans in the stands.

With an eye toward emulating the manically literate comedy of a classic such as Hawks' His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby, Clooney the director drafted Renee Zellweger to play Lexie Littleton, a quick-witted newspaper reporter assigned by her editor at the Chicago Tribune to tear down Rutherford's story. (A reference to Sergeant York during the climactic game suggests that the Hawks connection was intentional, since the soldier's exploits became the subject of another celebrated Hawks movie.)

This combination might have worked given a better playbook. Evidently, screenwriters Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly also sustained concussions. They make a hash of both aspects of the premise, fumbling the sports angle and the romantic triangle that develops between the three lead characters.

The story doesn't make a lot of sense and no one seems to mind. The lazily tossed social commentary and half-hearted attempt to depict the history of the game are un-catchable. Rutherford's rapacious agent (Jonathan Pryce) is in the wrong movie and Stephen Root's sloshed sports reporter has definitely suffered head trauma.

There are a few snappy exchanges between Lexie and the guys, but mostly Leatherheads jumps between fast-paced sight gags and physical shtick (set to Randy Newman's frantic jazz-era score) and interminable, talky scenes that suggest slo-mo had already been invented back in 1925.

Only one fleeting moment between Lexie and Dodge hints at any chemistry between Zellweger and Clooney, and that could be due to the fact they're dancing in a speak-easy to a sultry number sung by Jennifer Hudson. Otherwise, as the clock ticks down, Clooney's eyes bulge, Krasinksi smurks, and Zellweger waves a cigarette around without ever taking a drag or intimating she's heard of Rosalind Russell or Katherine Hepburn, let alone studied their work.

It's telling that Leatherheads is being released during the opening week of the baseball season and not in the autumn when football dominates and prestige movies bow. The national pastime has nothing to worry about. As much as I was hoping it would be a game effort, I'd quick-kick Leatherheads on any given Sunday.

(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "PG-13" for brief strong language.)


                                                                                                                                                                               
 
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