Film Review: ‘Leatherheads’ years too late

"I pretended to be someone I wanted to be until, finally, I became that person… or he became me." – Cary Grant

George Clooney is the Cary Grant of our generation. Charismatic demeanor, chiseled features and charming personality – he is arguably the biggest star in Hollywood while managing to give off an undeniable "one of the guys" appeal that makes him universally relatable.

However, he is not Grant. But, in his latest film Leatherheads, he seems to really want to be.

Not saying Clooney isn’t as talented or as likable as Grant (he very much is), but the two actors’ careers are separated by nearly seven decades.

Times have changed. People have changed. Movies have changed.

So when Leatherheads, Clooney’s third directorial project, reaches for the stars and tries to pay respect to such campy 1930s and ’40s romantic screwball comedies along the lines of His Girl Friday, it comes across as an awkward imitation rather than a homage-riddled trip down memory lane.

Leatherheads pays its dues to the films of the era, telling the story set during the 1920 rise of professional football, where a failing league drafts a hot-shot college player that brings an unprecedented wave of fans, publicity, and – unfortunately for the old-school players – rules to the previously unconventional sport.

The problem with Leatherheads is not that it’s a bad film, but rather a poor photocopy of a time when films like this were considered good. It’s not just the period that the film tries to replicate (which it does, quite successfully) but also the films of that period – and that’s where it fails.

The campy, over-the-top and slapstick feel of His Girl Friday feels natural because of the time period in which the film was released. Leatherheads assumes that, since it too is based in the first half of the 20th century, it must follow along stylistically.

The film deserves applause for attempting to bring back the screwball newspaper comedies (yes, it’s just as much about the newspaper business as it is about football), and I could easily see George Cukor, Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks making this very film 70 years ago, but the film stumbles in the end zone and the reality behind the wish is, shamefully, never fulfilled.

The film is so focused on processing this stylistic cinematic period that it’s never quite sure what it wants to be. A long triangle develops and then is seemingly abandoned and major characters are often indefinable – whether we’re supposed to be cheering for them to succeed or rooting for them to fail is never quite clear.

Amiable, easily processed and occasionally enjoyable, the film’s intentions are admirable enough to be respected, and while Clooney’s efforts as a director should be applauded, the film remains choppy and terminally tepid – it manages to get to the Super Bowl and then blows the game.

Clooney is inevitably likable, and a majority of the laughs come from his occasionally over-the-top performance as the old-school player dealing with the new way of life on the field. Playfully charismatic with good comedic timing, Clooney doesn’t reach his comedic potential like he did in O Brother Where Art Thou but gives just enough to make him, easily, the strongest cast member on screen. Clooney himself is old-school Hollywood and fits like a puzzle piece into this time period.

Renee Zellweger is cute enough as the reporter caught in the middle of the brief love triangle and her acid-tongued reporter holds her own against the leading men. The very talented John Krasinski (from TV’s The Office) unfortunately falls flat. Granted, the character is nothing great to work with, but his obvious talent as a comedic actor fails to find its way into his performance.

In the end, Clooney may have really wanted to be Grant. He may have walked, talked and acted like Grant would have in the role, but he just couldn’t pull off acting like Grant. And that’s unfortunate; however, what’s most unfortunate of all is that he didn’t even need to. He already is.

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