We’ve all heard the cliché “They don’t make ‘em like they used to!”, and it’s usually said with regret… but in the case of comedy pictures, I think it’s more of a “hurrah”, because when modern filmmakers try to resuscitate obsolescent idioms, the results can often be rather clumsy and lacklustre. Exhibit A: Leatherheads (2008), a nostalgic sports-themed rom-com directed by George Clooney (of Out of Sight fame), who also did extensive work on the original script, to give it more of an old-timey “screwball” feel. I wasn’t actually planning to write about it when I ejected the disc from my player yesterday, because I hadn’t been especially inspired one way or the other… but this morning I was dithering over whether to put the DVD out to charity or hang on to it for a (theoretical) second viewing, and something compelled me to spare it from the “out” pile. Nothing hilariously funny happens, and the story seems rather drawn-out and muddled… but it’s such an affable effort, that I can’t help feeling some affection for it.
For those who don’t know, the story follows the fortunes of ‘Dodge Connelly’ (played by Clooney), who is captain of the Duluth Bulldogs, a struggling “professional” American-football team, circa 1925. In a bid to save his team from total financial oblivion, he hits upon the cunning plan to recruit a much-loved college football star, ‘Carter “the Bullet” Rutherford’ (played by John Krasinski, of The Office fame), hoping that Rutherfood’s reputation as a decorated war hero will boost ticket sales, and the Bulldogs’ reputation. Meanwhile, a comely newspaper reporter named ‘Lexie Littleton’ has been tasked with raking up the muck on Rutherfood, and exposing him as a big fat phoney! And if that were the entire scope of the screenplay, then it might have been a more successful piece… but there’s also a lot of guff in there about the politics of professional “football”, and how it evolved into the multi-million-dollar behemoth it is today. Yawn! Personally, I couldn’t give a toss about sports, so I was far more interested in the supposed romantic triangle suggested by the tagline on the cover (“nothing comes between love like a little competition”)… but Lexie never really gives Carter (or the audience) the impression that she’s interested in him as anything other than an eye-catching headline, even though she clearly feels some guilt about stabbing him in the back with her poisonous pen. At one point Carter and Dodger engage in fisticuffs to settle a matter of “honour”, after the older man stumbles home with Lexie and a tell-tale lipstick smear on his lips, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what they actually thought they were fighting for. It was blatantly obvious from the first moment Dodge and Lexie met that they’d be ending up together, so there really wasn’t much suspense there, and there certainly wasn’t any serious “competition”.
One of the main reasons I can’t bring myself to trash this movie is that the aforementioned Lexie is played by the very lovely Renée Zellweger. I thought she was absolutely adorable as ‘Bridget Jones’, and still feel enormous goodwill towards her for the work she did in those movies. And I did genuinely like her character here… a feisty, proto-feminist career gal, with a quick tongue and “great legs”… I’m just not sure that Zellweger has precise enough diction for the rapid-fire, rat-a-tat quipping that the role required. I know that seems like an odd criticism, but this is my whole point about trying to recapture the spirit of the old “classics”… it’s not enough to simply have period-accurate production design… you also have to have period-accurate performances! It’s a very male-dominated, sweat-and-mud-soaked sort of movie, so the only other notable female character is ‘Belinda Whippleworth’, a ditsy flapper Dodge picks up and takes to a speakeasy… then immediately ditches in favour of Lexie. Tch, tch! Belinda is played by Heather Goldenhersh, who had minor roles in The School of Rock, The Believer and Sex and the City, before scoring a starring role in a sitcom called The Class, alongside Lizzy Caplan (of Mean Girls fame) and Lucy Punch (of Festival fame).
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and lock myself in a dark room until the urge to buy a copy of Down With Love passes…