The Coen Brothers understand better than anyone how to direct George Clooney for maximum comedic impact. In the underrated Intolerable Cruelty and the cult classic O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Clooney brings an undeniable level of suavity to the proceedings that not only sends up his own public persona, but captures the spirit of classic screwball farces. Sadly, with his football comedy Leatherheads, Clooney the director gets in the way of Clooney the actor. The script, while not nearly as structurally sound as the old films Clooney and company are attempting to invoke, does offer enough snappy dialogue that the right cast should be able to make large portions of it sing. And these actors are mostly up to the task. There is a fine line between acting broadly and mugging, and Clooney crosses that line on a few occasions, while Renée Zellweger deftly captures the spirit of Rosalind Russell, and John Krasinski gives a savvy spin to most of his dialogue with a relaxed but pointed delivery. Sadly, the dialogue scenes are slackly edited. There is dead air between the lines and the comedy evaporates into that void. The words are funny, but the timing squashes the laughter. Even still, the appealing actors and the unique setting make it easy to forgive the film's faults, at least during the first half of the movie. Even with its persistently faulty pacing, you keep hoping it will get better.
As a director, Clooney's topic of choice has thus far always been the power and influence of the media. Growing up in a family that made its living in the public eye obviously formed his outlook, and his first film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, was very much about what living in show business, on the edge of reality and fantasy, can do to someone's mental health. Later, his fantastic Good Night, and Good Luck. offered a concise exploration of media and politics feed off each other. If Clooney could have gotten these themes out of his system for just one film, Leatherheads should have been it. Instead, he saddles this comedy with a serious subplot about how the media creates heroes, and while that is certainly an interesting topic, neither the direction nor the script are savvy enough to fuse this with the screwball elements. In the last half of the film, Clooney stops the laughs to make points about the nature of celebrity, and that decision buries what the film had going for it. George Clooney is a fine, thoughtful director, and one of the few actors of his era who brings to mind the charms of Hollywood's golden age. But Leatherheads shows that those two aspects of his personality do not coexist so peacefully, making it both a disappointment and an object of remarkable interest for those who keep wondering what makes the man tick.