Under the guise of the birth of professional football, George Clooney continues his fascination with media, and media figures, in his new film Leatherheads. His political message goes down easier because it's infused with comedy. Leatherheads is like Tim O'Brien's "How To Tell A True War Story" mixed with the screwball, machine-gun-mouthed, manners comedies of Howard Hawks and George Stevens. But where Clooney really wants to live is in that special, reserved corner where Preston Sturges is enshrined. He's got quite a ways to go - Clooney isn't keenly aware of society the way Sturges was - but Leatherheads is a fine first step, and by far, his best film.
It should always be preferred that Clooney stick to comedies. His eyes can sell you on ridiculous lines, and that seductive natural playfulness brings out the best in his co-stars (see Renee Zellwegger and John Krasinski... both on point in Leatherheads). This is why one coughs, and remains unconvinced, when Clooney shows up bearded and bellied in those serious turns in Solaris, Syriana, and Good Night, and Good Luck. Contrast those with Three Kings, Out of Sight, the Oceans movies, and Intolerable Cruelty (his best performance thus far...) and tell me which performances stand out the most. Sure, the Academy rewards the "serious" Clooney, but the Academy has been wrong, 80% of the time, since 1954.
But back to Leatherheads....
Clooney was right in getting sports humorist and journalist Rick Reilly to pen the script. Reilly knows how to balance serious sports love with the inanities that come along with it. Yet, at movies mid-point, Clooney shifts focus to the ginned-up war record of national golden boy Carter Richards (Krasinski), and let's go of the whimsy that was working so well early on. Carter's fabricated persona is a storyline that could work (again, Sturges would've pulled it off...) but Clooney brings Leatherheads down into a area of tedium that betrays the lightness of the film's first half (a climactic scene in the football commissioner's office is especially awkward and clumsy). It's a hint that the political cynicism of the 00's may start corroding outside of the typical thriller and action genres.
Clooney's objectives are well-intentioned, and, if anything, Leatherheads is a sign that he may end up having a decent directorial future. Perhaps, with his upcoming role in the Coens political comedy Burn After Reading, Clooney will take notes, and learn, from living legends instead of pining after ones that are already buried.