George Clooney’s third film as director, and his first disappointment, is rather less than the sum of its parts. It never bores, and offers some fine comic banter and smart sequences, and yet it never decides what it wants to be. Clooney seemingly envisioned a motor-mouthed, hyper-stylised retro-comedy, such as his sometime-collaborators the Coen Brothers specialise in. Such a film is promised in the opening football sequences that contrast the gilded glories of college football with the rugged exigencies of the professional variety of the mid-‘20s, with cows watching in bewilderment as players wrestle in glorified pastures..
And yet Clooney pursues more ambitious targets, offering a deadpan mixture of the gritty blue-collar wit of Slap-Shot (1977) with a classical screwball comedy, and even a dash of Eight Men Out (1987), quoting John Sayles' bittersweet take on the subordination of cheeky chutzpah to unforgiving authority. Clooney’s own character, the aging, old-school player Dodge Connelly, contends with changing forces in his beloved game and tries to extricate himself with the maximum of grace and a minimum of respect to the new powers-that-be.
With his team, the Duluth Lions, beset by financial difficulties in a game nobody takes seriously, he decides to court champion college player and war hero Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) to play with them, with the incentive of a colossal pay cheque, which intrigues his agent C.C. Frazier (Jonathan Pryce) more than it does Rutherford. Dodge’s ploy works too well; he and his kind are immediately faced with being antiquated in an age of militarised, rulebook-enforced on-field tactics. And then there’s flapper journalist Lexy Littleton (Renae Zellwegger), who’s been assigned to flirt her way into Carter’s confidence, to dig up the facts behind his wartime exploits..
One trouble is that Coen-esque smart-ass swagger doesn’t mesh well with Clooney’s rather more humane, personal sensibility, which finds its space when Dodge and Lexy’s romance takes them to a speak-easy, slow-dancing to a crooning black chanteuse in a moment that evokes the wistful jazz poetry that punctuated and leavened Good Night, and Good Luck’s (2005) procedural intensity.
But the film seems weighted down by conflicting impulses, much like the concluding football game where the mud-caked players can’t score a point, an attempt at a comedic anti-climax that only fulfils the second part of that phrase: Clooney doesn’t stage the antic game-play with a tenth of the detail and zest of, say, the immortal football match of MASH (1970).
Not helping is that the central trio’s relationships are never really endowed with much urgency (although all three actors work with the comic timing of an atomic clock), meaning that the crucial romantic tension and stake in the final conflict never resolve into anything more than theory. For instance, the sequence in which Dodge and Carter fistfight their way to a draw, a classic scene in the American macho tradition from films like The Big Country (1958), neither cements the men’s friendship nor achieves sufficient irony in failing to resolve anything.
Clooney pulls off some fine comedic sequences, such as the bar fights where he cuts straight from confrontation to battle, rendering such explosions of violence more absurd by unmooring them from cause-and-effect rules; most hilariously when he cuts from the midst of one such brawl to the participants singing “Over There”, a moment that would make John Ford proud in its evocation of drinkin’, fightin’, but essentially big-hearted Americana.