Friday, April 11, 2008

'Leatherheads' is a winning throwback to '30s screwball

You have to admire George Clooney. As an actor, write and director, he does what he wants and he does it with style, wit and intellect. His clout gets important, challenging projects made that otherwise wouldn’t, and even when he does lighter fare he often goes against the mainstream grain.

Case in point, “Leatherheads” is a throwback to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s that is made with no sense of irony or cynicism. It so closely follows the screwball template in terms of pacing and tone that it could’ve been made 70 years ago and easily hold its own next to the films of Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, George Cukor and Frank Capra. Is Clooney’s film as good as the works of those greats? No, but it is a loving homage to a forgotten style.

It is hard to imagine what modern audiences who last year swarmed to raunchy and vulgar comedies like “Knocked Up” and “Superbad” will make of “Leatherheads,” a film that uses a gentler blend of fast-paced dialogue mixed with broad slapstick comedy.

Clooney is clearly a nostalgic guy. His directorial debut “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” was set in the seedy world of 1970s game shows like “The Dating Game.” His second directing job, “Good Night, and Good Luck” sent him back to the 1950s newsroom of Edward R. Murrow. Now he’s gone back to the 1920s and the early days of pro football.

Written by Sports Illustrated writers Rick Reilly and Duncan Brantley with an uncredited re-write by Clooney, “Leatherheads” will likely disappoint those going in expecting a sports film. Yes, there is some great on-field humor, especially involving a rather large high school recruit, but football is not the focal point of the film.

Clooney uses football as the backdrop for a love triangle involving himself as an aging football player, John Krasinski (“The Office”) as a war hero and college ball hot shot and Renee Zellweger as a reporter sent in to check the validity of Krasinski's war story.

We all know where the story is going, but that is sort of the point. The classic screwball comedies were the equivalent of comfort food and acted as escapism from the dire reality of the Depression. There was solace in watching a film with an undemanding story reach a happy conclusion. With screwball comedy, we watch for how we get to the end, not what happens in the end.

And the how in “Leatherheads” is quite enjoyable. Clooney in Cary Grant-mode is effortlessly charming, and, like Grant, handles the physical comedy and witty repartee with equal aplomb. Zellweger is a worthy adversary in verbal combat in a role that Katherine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert or Rosalind Russell might have played. Clooney and Zellweger’s scenes of combative dialogue are gems in precision timing and comedic acting.

Krasinski, the rookie of a cast of heavyweights, holds his own and plays his role of a reluctant war hero with a sweet, low-key charisma. As with Zellweger, he plays nicely off of Clooney, although their battles are a bit more physical. A fist fight in which neither one wants to get injured before a game is a comic highlight.

Stephen Root, who appeared with Clooney in the Coen Brothers’ “O’ Brother Where Art Thou,” also provides fine comedic support as a sports reporter.

This is pure, simple, easygoing entertainment that looks and sounds great, thanks to well rendered period details and a nice, jaunty score from Randy Newman. Comedy this good is harder than it looks, but Clooney and company make it look like a breezy stroll in the park.

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