Leatherheads (Universal), George Clooney’s third outing as a director and the first in which he plays a starring role, has everything going for it on paper. Setting a screwball comedy against the backdrop of the emergence of professional football in the 1920s sounds like a rollicking idea. The period songs and costumes are as jaunty as can be. And the casting of Clooney, our era’s Clark Gable, as aging football star Dodge Connolly is a natural. So, why does the whole thing feel sloggier than the climactic game, a near-scoreless battle waged in a lake of mud?
Much as I’d like to, I can’t put all the blame on Renée Zellweger. I’ve always had an animus toward this actress, with her self-congratulatory cuteness and incessant mugging. But I have to admit she’s nicely cast as spunky newspaper reporter Lexie Littleton, who begins to follow Dodge’s team, the Duluth Bulldogs, after they recruit a popular college player, Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski). Carter is also a WWI hero, known for having single-handedly captured a whole company of German soldiers in the battle of the Argonne. Lexie’s editor (Jack Thompson) finds the whole story suspicious and puts Lexie on Carter’s trail. Lexie’s initial strategy, in the grand pre-feminist Barbara Stanwyck style, is to seduce Carter into spilling the beans about what really happened in the war. But George Clooney being George Clooney—all the more so in a speakeasy—she can concentrate only so long on that skinny guy from The Office.
Leatherheads’ overlong middle section is devoted to the vagaries of the Dodge/Lexie/Carter love triangle, as Clooney and Zellweger exchange semi-snappy banter while the hopelessly upstaged Krasinski moons on the sidelines. It was enough to make this sports-averse viewer wish for a little more pigskin. It’s fascinating to learn that pro football as we know it is a relatively new sport and that, as recently as the mid-1920s, the game was unregulated, poorly attended, and on the verge of bankruptcy (even as college football drew huge audiences). The movie nostalgically contrasts Dodge’s disappearing version of the game—essentially, a barroom brawl between two goalposts—with Carter’s emerging one, an efficient business dependent on advertising money. But the script—which was written by two Sports Illustrated reporters with a long history of covering football—seems reluctant to explore this contrast, perhaps for fear of alienating its female audience. Personally, I’d have preferred to see more of the backroom tactics of the nation’s first football commissioner (an arresting Peter Gerety) and less of Zellweger pouting in period hats.
Still, Leatherheads is better than a finger in your eye. It’s a perfectly passable, if instantly forgettable, date movie, lushly shot by Newton Thomas Sigel and with a script intelligently versed in American classics like His Girl Friday and Hail the Conquering Hero. Maybe Clooney has just raised our expectations too high with his uninterrupted ascent from “that dude on E.R.” to respected lefty director/producer (by way of Messenger of Peace and Sexiest Man Alive). At this point in his career, he’s earned the right to make a movie that’s just OK. If Clooney’s contemplating going retro again for his next project, may I suggest a remake of It Happened One Night? Reese Witherspoon would make a fine latter-day Claudette Colbert, and instead of just going bare-chested as Gable famously did, Clooney could guarantee big box office by taking it all off.