George Clooney wins frequent comparisons to Clark Gable and Cary Grant. But we don't have to go back that far: 2005's "Good Night, and Good Luck," with its obvious political leanings (to the left, to the left) proved that Clooney is more like Warren Beatty. (He acts, he directs, he deflects the praise he seeks. What a gentleman.) Now they've both made romantic comedies tinged with football. I'm partial to "Heaven Can Wait," Beatty's 1978 gauzy remake of "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" (1941), with Beatty as a dead quarterback's ghost. The joke premise turned into a sort of existential crisis. Clooney's movie, "Leatherheads," comes out today and turns the birth of professional football into a screwball farce.
For a few early scenes, that idea is reasonably entertaining. The film moves slowly and steadily, but it's never exactly dull, just mild. The year is 1925, and the college circuit is more popular than the lowly, stagnant pro leagues, where a good game is one that ends in fistfights and yelling. Clooney plays Dodge Connolly, the captain of the Duluth Bulldogs, a gang of anonymously rugged lugs. It wouldn't be surprising if at the end, we learned that the movie was actually about how professional wrestling was born. They smoke. They drink. They wear wool uniforms. And Dodge more or less writes the team's press.
To get more rumps in the seats, Dodge recruits Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski) to join the Bulldogs. A decorated war hero (the story goes he forced Germans into submission) and a Princeton football star, he appears to be the most popular man in America. The Bulldogs are a Mickey Mouse operation. But after Dodge promises the kid a lot of money, his manager (Jonathan Pryce) signs him up.
Pretty soon Renee Zellweger turns up as Clooney's verbal sparring partner. She's playing a hard-working big-city reporter named - alliteration alert - Lexie Littleton. Lexie gets a tip that Carter's war story is bogus and follows the kid around, trying to seduce the truth out him. Naturally, Dodge is smitten with her, too, and the film breaks out into screwball hives. Zellweger glides into the movie wearing a hat impaled by a feather. The boys in the newsroom cringe at it, but somewhere Rosalind Russell is tipping her cap. Russell might have something else to say about Zellweger's lack of vigor. She's not miscast so much as misdirected. As Dodge is arriving to introduce himself, Lexie is telling another suitor to take a hike.
"You're just substituting my bosom for your mother's."
"I didn't come here to be insulted."
"No, where do you go?"
The way Zellweger says this, it's unclear whether she's serious or not. The movie's obvious model for Lexie (and her hat) is Russell in Howard Hawks's "His Girl Friday." But where's the vinegar? The dialogue in Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly's script doesn't pop or zing out of the actors' mouths. And the pace keeps going slack. The final game, for instance, is a real mess. Are we supposed to care who wins?
The movie doesn't have even tone, either. Clooney ransacks other directors' styles or themes - Preston Sturges's cynicism, Frank Capra's earnestness, Ernst Lubitsch's sexual insinuations, Robert Altman's randomness, Steven Soderbergh's riveting glibness, the Coen brothers' mocking obsession with idiots and fat people. This is an unmade bed of a movie - and ambiguous to a fault. (Even the happy ending feels washed out. The movie wraps up with two characters driving off into the sunset - although I can't be sure what time of day it is, and the sky is overcast.)
"Heaven Can Wait" wasn't perfect. But it floated, where Clooney's movie doesn't. Beatty made "Heaven" with Buck Henry. Maybe "Leatherheads" needed a copilot to keep it steady. The movie is a cartoon comedy that keeps changing its mind about how silly it really wants to be. Eventually, the plot about Carter's tall tale overwhelms the movie, straining to draw hollow parallels to today's wars, journalism scandals, and pro-sports woes.
Clooney is pathologically moral. Even when masterminding heists, he's the good guy. In that sense, he might not be a bigger narcissist than Beatty (Clooney has not taken to lighting himself the Streisand way), just a better one: We don't notice it as much because Clooney's pretending to be one of us. But Clooney knows he's the star. He even installs himself in earlier eras where movie stars really counted for something. Clooney's heard that he's like Clark Gable and Cary Grant. In "Leatherheads," he can be Gable and Grant - until, of course, he decides he also wants to be a politician.
Beatty always seemed like he was running for president of Hollywood. Clooney's films leave you with the same feeling. But where a movie like "Reds" is sometimes rousing as Tinseltown art, Clooney's movies sacrifice everything to wag a finger. That can make for dispiriting moviegoing: You never feel like you're good enough for him.