Complications arrive in the trim form of Chicago journalist Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), an ambitious writer dispatched by her editor to investigate Carter’s claims of battlefield valour after a former comrade exposes him as an opportunistic fraud. Soon Lexie has both men in a flap as she trails the team across the country, spitting out machine-gun witticisms, squinting suspiciously and brandishing her irrepressible moxie.
Leatherheads isn’t a bad premise for a screwball comedy and it is clear that Clooney has gone to considerable effort to bring it to the screen; taking hefty dollops of inspiration from classics like It Happened One Night and The Philadelphia Story, adding an emphatically jazzy score from Randy Newman and peppering his cast with lumpy 20s faces. Nothing wrong with any of that, either. Furthermore, the influence of the Coen Brothers on his cinematic thinking is obvious from the opening frames; a little of O, Brother’s sepia-tinted glow and more of Hudsucker’s pin-sharp tailoring and rat-a-tat dialogue. Again, nothing amiss in that. But none of that matters, in the end because no matter how the director and his cinematographer, Thomas Sigel do to make Leatherheads look authentic, it never feels right; the beat is off, the momentum flags.
After a bright, tight first act, the film gradually loses focus and heft, wandering aimlessly around the marked boundaries of the story before congealing into a pastiche of Golden Age adventurism and then attempting to revive itself for a grandstand sporting finale. A long scene which has the main players trapped in a room thrashing out a complicated compromise hangs flat on the screen; Clooney perched in a corner waiting for his moment to waggle his eyebrows in triumph when he should be behind the camera, making it better.
The cynic might see the whole shiny effort as a complex delivery system for a tutorial in movie-star charm, duly delivered by the closest thing we have to Cary Grant nowadays, but the lumpy, tedious results are far less bewitching than Clooney would have wanted. Both sport and movies, according to Clooney, were better before the marketers and the regulators got involved; amateur football played by adventure-seeking privateers, movies made by fast-talking, wit-slinging daredevils. In the good old days, blithe talents like Clarke Gable and Jean Arthur made it look easy, but making good movies is never easy. Capra and Wilder, Hawks and Cukor made magic through certainty of purpose and hard graft at the typewriter. Clooney’s heart is in the right place, but no amount of clever homage, genuine affection or old-fashioned tenacity can make up for a dull script and an inattentive presentation.