Actor/director George Clooney (“Good Night and Good Luck”) tries a throwback to the Hollywood screwball romantic genre with this sports comedy set in the 1920s, when America’s pro-football league was in its infancy.
Charming Dodge Connolly (Clooney) is an aging player who recruits a hotshot Princeton star/war hero, Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford (John Krasinski from “The Office”), hoping to revitalize the Duluth Bulldogs, a ragtag team of coal miners and farmers whose audience is dwindling. Inevitably, they become rivals for an intrepid newspaper reporter, Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger).
Genially noting, “I steal from everybody,” Clooney lifts snippets from directors Howard Hawks, George Cukor, Preston Sturges and the Coen brothers’ “Hudsucker Proxy,” among others. The awkward gracelessness of Zellweger’s Lexie can be traced directly back to Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday,” along with her self-assuredness. Cary Grant must have been Clooney’s role model, particularly his amiable elusiveness. Only, Grant’s reactions were usually oblique, while Clooney’s are all too transparent. And the conceit of Krasinski’s character has its antecedents in “Hail the Conquering Hero” with contemporary tinges of John Kerry’s Swift Boat.
While the sharp dialogue by screenwriters Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly epitomizes quarreling without losing your class – it’s a ritual banter of personal exchange and witty expression – the storyline is as uneven as the pacing. I suspect it may play better on DVD where it will easily recoup its investment, particularly among diehard football fans who may be intrigued by the antiquity of the plays. Back then, for example, passing was considered ‘unmanly,’ so it was rough-and-tumble down-the-middle until one player broke free and ran for the goalposts to score.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Leatherheads” is an admirably stylized 6. Yet as sports comedies go, it fumbles.