Football turns screwball in 'Leatherheads'

George Clooney's period-set sports film aims to capture the romantic zing of Howard Hawks's farces.

George Clooney plays an over-the-hill football stalwart from the 1920s in "Leatherheads," but there's nothing over the hill about his screen presence. Even in a middling comedy such as this one, which he also directed, he's alarmingly ardent. Clooney is relying on the tremendous audience rapport he's built up over the years, and he's right to do so.

Clooney's Dodge Connelly has been kicking around the sport for years without attracting much in the way of fans or sponsorships. His team, the Duluth Bulldogs, consists of brawlers who otherwise work light jobs like coal-mining. The only reason these guys play the game is because they love it – or, to be more precise, because they love colliding with each other.

This is, after all, the pro football era when you were considered a sissy if you threw a pass instead of charging through the line. College football, however, was another story. The best college players were genuine stars and their games were highly publicized. The conceit of "Leatherheads" is that pro football became big in America by poaching from the colleges.

Enter Princeton football star and decorated war hero Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski, from TV's "The Office"). Dodge attempts to bail out his collapsing league by securing Carter's services. But Carter's war exploits – he claims to have single-handedly wiped out an entire German battalion in World War I – come in for scrutiny when gum-chewing ace newspaper reporter Lexie (Renée Zellweger), in her scarlet dress, is put on the case.

This is all a bit cutesy. Clooney is great fun to watch as the hard headed, conniving Dodge, but his instincts as a director are too broad. He's trying to combine two genres, the old-time sports movie and the vintage newspaper comedy.

First-time screenwriters Rick Reilly and Duncan Brantley once worked together at Sports Illustrated and they capture a bit of the swagger and camaraderie of the gridiron life. But they can't really duplicate, though they try, the tone and spirit of their chief model, Howard Hawks's "His Girl Friday."

The filmmakers' love of those old movies is everywhere apparent in "Leatherheads" but they can't do much more than reference them. They can't create an entity that stands on its own, except as a newfangled "tribute." Why see the new movie when you can rent the old one?

The answer is: To see Clooney and company. If anybody else had starred in "Leatherheads," it might have seemed like a lunkheaded vanity production. But Clooney, both as actor and director, invests the film with a friendliness that makes it entertaining even if you've seen it all before. Clooney is saying, You haven't seen it all with me, and, to prove it, he takes a big-kid glee in romping through the gridiron and getting caked with mud.

The flat-out squareness of this movie takes some getting used to. Clooney doesn't just make a movie set in the '20s, he also films many of its sequences in the static, straight-ahead style of that era. As a movie star, he's amazingly malleable because he incarnates the Golden Era glamour of Hollywood while also being indubitably modern. This is why he is able to come across so well in period pieces – he never seems out of place. In the Coen Brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" the American past was refracted through the filmmakers' weirdo prism and Clooney fit right in with it, just as he looked at home in period movies as disparate as "Good Night, and Good Luck," (which he also directed) and "The Good German," not to mention the modern-day "Michael Clayton," with its neo-Bogart tonality.

Clooney seems aware in his movies of his retro-ness, and he uses it with comic effect in "Leatherheads." It's a pleasant time-killer, nothing more. But nothing less, either. Grade: B

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.

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