In his third spin behind the camera, George Clooney attempts one of the hardest things there is to do — re-create the fizz of old Hollywood screwball comedies — and creates just a mild buzz. “Leatherheads,” a larky romp about the early days of professional football, aims only to please and proves perfectly amiable, but ultimate effect is one of much energy expended to minimal payoff. Arch and funny in equal measure, this 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.
It’s always been hard to interest modern moviegoers in the early days of even the most popular sports — “A League of Their Own” seems the well-liked anomaly in the field — and Clooney goes about it here by giving a ‘20s story a ‘30s feel a la the madcap romantic comedies made by Howard Hawks, George Cukor, Frank Capra and others during the genre’s heyday.
Establishing its throwback status by using a vintage Universal logo (just as “The Sting” did) and its jaunty attitude via period tunes, the film focuses on a moment, in 1925, when college football reigned and the so-called professional version was so derelict and disreputable it was threatened with extinction. Teams were made up of miners, farmers, high schoolers and men old enough to be the latter’s fathers, brawlers who drank on the field and knew nothing of rules. Sometimes it seemed there were as many people on the field as there were in the stands.
When the Duluth Bulldogs — not the worst team around at the time — are faced with bankruptcy, their leading player, Dodge Connolly (Clooney) hatches a scheme to recruit the nation’s most famous college player, Princeton’s Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford (John Krasinski, of TV’s “The Office”) to play for them. For $5,000 per game, Carter’s well-heeled agent (Jonathan Pryce) agrees, further placated by Dodge’s platitudes about wanting to legitimize the game.
Carter is a big deal not only for his speed and brawn, but for his touted wartime heroics; like Sergeant York, he is celebrated for having single-handedly induced many Germans to surrender. But one newspaper editor (Jack Thompson) thinks Carter is a fake and assigns sassy reporter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger) to “break the myth.”
Clooney, the other actors and the scripters, former Sports Illustrated reporters Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, clearly know the name of the game they’re playing; one feels their genuine desire for the film to look, sound and feel right, to recapture the spirit of the great old movies, and to convey a certain moment when the sport changed from a freewheeling, down-and-dirty game men played because they loved it, to something that suddenly involved enough money for rules, ethics and codes of conduct to be imposed.
Many of the genre requisites are accounted for — a colorful cast of characters, rambunctious behavior, glamorous clothes and settings, and quick-witted repartee among good-looking people. Dodge and Lexie have initially opposing interests — he needs Carter’s heroic image maintained for mercenary reasons, while she means to destroy it — and the verbal duels in their one-on-one scenes are actually pretty good. Maybe a bit too good, however, as their exchanges sound so finely polished that they stand distinct from the talk in the rest of the film.
The romantic triangle also proceeds in fits and starts. Lexie and the tall, manly Carter seem to quickly take to one another, but as considerable time passes their relationship doesn’t really develop, while Dodge is obliged to watch from the sidelines even as he sneaks into Lexie’s sleeping car berth one night. There’s considerable joking about Lexie being too old for Carter and Dodge being too old for Lexie, although it wouldn’t seem that Clooney needs to hang up his romantic leading man spurs just yet.
Other incongruities emerge: World War I ended in 1918, so why is Carter only a junior at Princeton in 1925? And how is it that, shortly after it looked as though pro football was about to go belly-up, the game is being played at large stadiums in front of packed houses with the games broadcast on radio?
Resolution of the Carter scandal and the climactic gridiron contest, which resembles mud wrestling, are smoothly handled, although, once again, they feel like obligatory motions nicely executed rather than anything urgent or surpassingly entertaining.
Physically, “Leatherheads” is entirely inviting. Newton Thomas Sigel bathes the South Carolina locations in an attractively autumnal amber. Working in immaculate concert are Jim Bissell’s vivid production design and Louise Frogley’s lively costumes; the opening scene, at a Princeton-Penn game where everyone in the crowd is beautifully dressed in long coats and hats, makes a striking impression. Randy Newman’s score has genuine flavor and avoids cliches (tunesmith appears briefly as a speakeasy piano player).
Led by their able player-coach Clooney, the pleasure-inducing cast performs with uniform spirit and energy. Peter Gerety all but takes over the latter stretch of the picture as the newly installed football commissioner; his looks and glances of complicity, warning and power-yielding are indelible.