When George Clooney brought the Leatherheads premiere to Maysville, Ky., last week, it was a good deed done right. On a cold night, some 2,000 people crowded Main Street in the picturesque, historic Ohio River town to see him.
He was a favorite son, having attended high school in nearby Augusta. His aunt, singer Rosemary Clooney, was a Maysville native who in 1953 brought her own film The Stars Are Singing to the town. That is still a peak moment in contemporary Maysville history. Now George has done something similar.
For almost an hour, Clooney greeted the crowd, posing for photos with shrieking children and thrilling women and men (especially women). He signed everything handed him, even a pillowcase, and was friendly beyond belief.
Renee Zellweger, his Leatherheads co-star who came with him and was maybe a bit underdressed for the cold, also did her best to be gracious. But she was shivering and needed to retreat for warm-up breaks.
Afterward, they went inside the town's attractive Washington Opera House to greet the several hundred people (including Gov. Steve Bashear and his wife) lucky enough to get into the screening.
Except for one little thing. The movie, directed by Clooney from a screenplay by Sports Illustrated scribes Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, isn't very good. It's innocuous enough, a PG-13 semi-slapstick, semi-screwball romantic comedy about the long-ago, post-World War I days of pro football, back when they wore leather helmets rather than the heavier modern kind with faceguards.
Clooney plays Jimmy "Dodge" Connelly, quarterback for a failing 1920s-era Duluth, Minn., team that hires war hero/college-football superstar Carter Rutherford (The Office's John Krasinski) to revive its fortunes. Zellweger, shades of His Girl Friday's Rosalind Russell, is ace Chicago newspaper reporter Lexie Littleton, who is out to investigate Carter's suspect war-hero past and maybe fall in love in the process — possibly with Carter, possibly with "Dodge."
As the plot summary reveals, there wasn't any problem making the good people of Maysville squirm over the politics, as they might have if Michael Clayton, Syriana or Good Night, and Good Luck had premiered there. Except, burrowed into that innocuous story was a rather serious, philosophical but only half-realized look at the ethics of patriotism, rather like Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers.
I wondered if that was the film Clooney really wanted to make, but he instead got bogged down with all the cliched football stuff. Maybe he had in mind Preston Sturges' Hail the Conquering Hero, which deftly satirized World War II patriotism while also being funny as hell. But Clooney's film just isn't in that league.
Clooney has become such a smooth, accomplished director that Leatherheads sails through its short running time without causing too much tedium. Newton Thomas Sigel's cinematography is resplendently colorful. Randy Newman has contributed a great Ragtime score, and production designer Jim Bissell nicely re-creates the era of small brick football stadiums, luxury passenger trains and elegant hotel parlors.
Clooney also gets nice performances out of Krasinski, who gently reveals Carter's wounded soul, and Zellweger, who uses a knowing sideways glance to allow her character's moxie to emerge. Several supporting actors, especially Jonathan Pryce as an avaricious agent, are quite good.
Strangely, however, it's Clooney's own performance that doesn't hold up. First of all, he's just plain too old to be impersonating a professional football player, even if the character of Dodge is written to try to allow for his age. (No, he doesn't take steroids.) There's more than a whiff of vanity involved in Clooney's brawny muddy scenes on the field.
Secondly, he oddly plays Dodge the footballer like that pit bull terrier with the ring around its eye in Our Gang. He goes around with a half-cocked stiffness to his gaze and movements that make you think there's something wrong with the guy's mental state.
Yet Clooney doesn't develop any distinctive off-field persona for Dodge. Instead, he leans on his own star image. The resultant emphatic confidence and modernist consciousness make us wonder where it's coming from, and it's hard to believe in Dodge as a real character. As a result, there's little chemistry between him and Zellweger.
It's great that Clooney brought Leatherheads to Maysville for a premiere. It made for a memorable event of a forgettable movie. Grade: C+
Opens April 4. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.