Leatherheads is George Clooney’s third outing as a director and the first in which he plays a starring role, and it must have looked good on paper, just as anything with George Clooney’s name attached to it probably looks good on paper. A musical based on the plumbing-supplies aisle in B&Q would probably look good with George Clooney’s name attached to it, plus top Hollywood actresses would likely vie to play the U-bend or plunger. But there are dangers, I suppose, in not having to fight to get projects made and just how dangerous this can be is frighteningly evident in Leatherheads, a slovenly, timid, strenuously studied movie that takes forever to get nowhere, uninterestingly.
This will come as a blow to those who are Clooney fans, as I am. Clooney is the dish of dishes; an über dish. Although constantly voted ‘The Sexiest Man Alive’ — which has to be better than ‘The Sexiest Man Dead’ — he has always appeared at ease both with his fame and himself. But here he seems, finally, to have fallen for his own press; his own reflection in the water, and ‘splash’! That is George falling in, by the way. Should I save him? I would if I could, because I am a good person; so good, in fact, that I would almost certainly insist on giving him mouth-to-mouth, whether he needed it or not.
Leatherheads is a romantic comedy set in the 1920s against the backdrop of America’s nascent professional football league. (Yes, you have every right to start yawning at the back.) Here, Clooney plays Dodge Connelly, a charming (would you believe?), somewhat over-the-hill footballer determined to steer his team from bar-room brawls to packed stadiums. Anyway, to cut a long story short, which you should thank me profusely for, through various shenanigans he manages to recruit Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) to the team, a tiptop player who is also a war hero, or so he says. But is he really? Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), a hot-shot, spitfire news reporter is determined to find out. America, apparently, cares, even though it didn’t matter a fig to me and probably won’t to you.
OK, the film has a good look, with its old-fashioned steam trains and cigarette advertisements and vintage sports kits and phones that dangle from hooks, all in neat, sepia-tinged colour. But there has to be more than a look and there isn’t. It’s meant to be an homage to the vintage Hollywood screwball comedies but, while Frank Capra and Preston Sturges and the rest made it look easy, Clooney does not. Clooney makes it look like extraordinarily hard work, probably because — and here’s the irony — its elements are just so lazy. The script is lazy, the music (ragtime) is lazy and the story is lazy beyond belief. How does Lexie find out the truth about Rutherford’s war? Through journalistic savvy coupled with hard-core investigative techniques? Nope. One night, she simply asks him:
Lexie: ‘Tell me what really happened to you during the war.’
Rutherford: ‘OK, then.’
Or words to that effect. Still, hardly hard-boiled witty repartee.
The performances? Crummy all round. Very, very crummy. I have nothing against Ms Zellweger, who was wondrous as Bridget Jones, but here she mainly just pouts and looks all squinty-eyed under a period hat. I don’t know what she is playing at, but it’s not sassy or spunky. She can’t even act smoking, holding out her cigarette disdainfully, as if it were a dirty nappy, whereas, as every smoker knows, you love that cigarette more than anything. (Listen, I talk a lot about things of which I know nothing, but I do know about smoking.)
And Clooney? Oh, George, how could you? While it is always a pleasure to look upon Mr Clooney, even I could tell he was lingering in frames and mugging when he should have been taking care of business behind the camera. That thing he does with his eyebrow; adorable, isn’t it? But in the scene where he slow dances with Lexie in a speakeasy, the scene which is meant to show their growing attraction, he does it so many times over her shoulder that I felt a bit ill. George and Renée are not Gable and Lombard all over again, just as this is less a rom com and more a deeply unsatisfying fumble. I’d still insist on giving George mouth-to-mouth, though. Once a good person always a good person, I suppose.