With his direction of Leatherheads (Universal, 4.4), George Clooney has attempted “one of the hardest things there is to do — re-create the fizz of old Hollywood screwball comedies,” notes Variety‘s Todd McCarthy. The result, lamentably, is “just a mild buzz.”
Indeed, the best screwball comedies play as if everyone in the cast is (a) slightly deranged and (b) on some kind of light flutter drug. Like the effect of two or three sips of champagne and a half-quaalude. Or a half tab of ecstasy. His Girl Friday, Some Like It Hot, 20th Century, The Lady Eve, My Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby, Ball of Fire and The Awful Truth all feel like this. They’re so stoned that they provide a kind of contact high. That’s the trick of these films, and why the best ones are still loved.
Leatherheads doesn’t quite manage this. It’s too good-hearted, too “charming,” too quick to smile. You want Clooney to pull back on the game and get real. A comedy without a serious foundation can feel too much like a jape, and so the mood humor in Leatherheads has a kind of ceiling. You want to give yourself over to it, but you can’t. The movie won’t let you. Because it only wants to make you feel good and spritzy, after a while it almost makes you feel a little bit bad. Even though it’s mostly “likable.” A curious effect.
“A larky romp about the early days of professional football, Leatherheads aims only to please and proves perfectly amiable, but the ultimate effect is one of much energy expended to minimal payoff,” McCarthy writes. “Arch and funny in equal measure, Leatherheads looks like a theatrical non-starter that Clooney fans and football devotees might be tempted to check out down the line on DVD or on the tube.”