April 7, 2008

A Kick in the (Leather)head

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Sometimes it is wrong to judge a movie by its trailer, since previews cannot capture the character, class and depth of truly great films. In the case of Leatherheads however, the movie is every bit as stupid as its previews would have you believe. As a director, George Clooney transitions from critically acclaimed hits — Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck. — to this piece of crap. Leatherheads is the kind of film that I would never, ever pay to see if The Sun weren’t subsidizing my ticket stub.
George Clooney plays the scrappy-and-tough Jimmy “Dodge” Connelly, the leader and star of the aging Duluth Bulldogs, a professional football team. The year is 1925 and football has not yet become the major American pastime it is today. The opening scene of the film juxtaposes the lack of professionalism in professional football with the far more intense collegiate scene. Dodge’s gang tosses around the old pigskin in rural Duluth, Minnesota, and their main spectators are grazing cows — while, on the opposite end of the spectrum, clean-cut All-American Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) scores a touchdown in Princeton to the approving roar of a sold-out stadium.
Dodge’s rough-and-tumble team is composed of farmers, miners and factory workers who get in bar fights the night before a game. The Bulldogs win their matches through underhanded tactics that confuse the other team, including the oft-mentioned but never explained “Crusty Bob” and “Pig in the Poke.” After the Bulldogs lose funding from their one and only sponsor, Dodge attempts to save his team from the brink of extinction by bringing the popularity of college football to Duluth.
He drafts Carter Rutherford to play for the Bulldogs, and the strategy has the desired effect, bringing a newfound popularity to professional football. The sassy Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) from The Chicago Sun Times follows Carter on the road to find out whether this smooth and confident college phenomenon is the real-deal American hero. Poor Lexie is the object of every man’s affection in this film, and ends up enforcing gender stereotypes more than she breaks them. The bulk of the story takes place in the opening scenes of the film, and for the subsequent hour and fifteen minutes, absolutely nothing happens.
Leatherheads encounters a common pitfall in many of today’s lighter and less substantive films; what should be a 90-minute feature is stretched too thin to a grueling two hours of stupid and unnecessary plot twists. The audience is forced to endure decreasingly funny jokes while plot developments that could be explained in a few scenes are drawn out into sub-stories with their own new protagonists, anti-heros and romantic leads. I found myself checking my watch several times as Lexie Littleton struggled between her affection for Dodge and Carter, and her desire to become an editor at The Sun Times by trashing them both in an investigative report.
At times the film veers off course from its light and airy slapstick comedy and attempts to present dark undertones criticizing the commercialization and transformation of football. Dodge laments how the game is changing as he complains, “rules take the fun out of the game.” These unwelcome injections of morality cause the movie to sag and slow towards the middle of the film. You could literally just see the beginning and end of the movie without missing out on any important narrative or worthwhile jokes.
On a more positive note, the music, costumes and set design gave this period piece a certain flavor that is usually not achieved in light comedies. Many of the jokes center around prohibition and the Great Depression, and one of the most clever and enjoyable scenes in the film had Dodge and Lexie running from the police during a raid on a speakeasy. The scene was reminiscent of a typical police chase involving Buster Keaton and the Keystone Cops, including costume changes, policemen running into doors and a jump out of a second story window for a quick escape. Clooney’s likeability and charm coupled with the aloofness of his rag tag team keeps this film funny (for a short while, that is).
Not the dumb comedy with a straightforward, feel good storyline we all wanted, the film could be better classified in a variety of ways. In one sense, Leatherheads an underdog story. In another, it’s a coming of age tale. Last but not least, it could be a Shakespearean romance. In essence, this is a movie that tries to do too much with too little material. I would most definitely save your ten dollars and wait to see this one (if you must) when it comes out on DVD.