Leatherheads – 2 & ½ popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Director George Clooney’s “Leatherheads,” a sports comedy circa 1925, amuses in a rote fashion that manages to be consistently convivial without offering a novel nuance or saying anything of great consequence. It’s a testament to what technically skilled filmmaking can accomplish even if the magic of inspiration doesn’t appear on its roster.

Such razzle can dazzle you a bit. The movie becomes the underdog. Human nature dictates that something better might await just beyond the next frame. While such optimism is an attribute far more important to great explorers than filmgoers, nobody’s going to laugh at you for hanging in there. It’s not like you’re saying the screen is round.

But alas, even with George Clooney’s movie star presence as aging pro football star Jimmy “Dodge” Connelly and Renee Zellweger’s swell effervescence as news reporter Lexie Littleton, no amount of hope can make “Leatherheads” a bona fide winner. And yet, good film or bad, it’d seem unsportsmanlike not to root for the Duluth Bulldogs.

That’s Dodge’s team, a motley crew of gridiron reprobates who’d rather knock heads with fellow outcasts on Sunday than toil all week in the mines and fields. They are the perfect bottom curs if ever there were any. But what really entices us to their chances is Clooney’s role as their tacitly acknowledged alpha leader. You see, Dodge has flair.

In fact, it’s his brainstorm that sets in motion the story by Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly. Back on their own two-yard-line financially, and no equivalent of the punt at their disposal, it looks like it’s the showers for Duluth. Several other so-called pro teams have already folded. And then a great notion strikes. Reinvent. Add style. Bring in a war hero.

There just so happens to be one on hand, of late glomming ink on all the front pages. Stepping right out of central casting, John Krasinki’s Carter Rutherford is male panache, 1920s style. Every schoolboy and his older sister can recite the tales of his bravery in the Argonne. Now attending Princeton, the tall, handsome lad is wowing ‘em on the gridiron.

Credit Dodge for a 6th sense that comes of being the real deal, if not the touted hero. He’s a survivor. A bit long of tooth at forty-five, but nonetheless still suiting up weekly, he figures Carter isn’t going to be happy when it comes time to relinquish the pedestal college football has afforded. He just might be the guy to legitimize the pro game.

Of course there’s a rub. A disgruntled vet who served with our golden boy is telling another version of the war story. And when he brings it to the attention of the editor at the Chicago Tribune, top reporter Lexie Littleton is handed the assignment: See if it’s all a myth and, if so, debunk it. Which means the gal will be doing the Mata Hari thing.

Under the pretext that she’s writing a piece about this great watershed in professional football, spunky, sexy and sassy Lexie is soon an embedded, so to speak, correspondent with the Bulldogs. In usual madcap comedy form, it only follows that both Carter and Dodge will be falling for the lass. Before long, the typically tangled web is woven.

Adding to the complications, the Feds want in on the action just in case this renaissance thing works. They install government wonk Pete Harkin (Peter Gerety) as commissioner in charge of regulating the sport. Uh oh…rules. Among other flies in the ointment with a vested interest there’s Carter’s handler, CC Frazier (Jonathan Pryce). The man is shady.

All these plot pieces in place, no real forward motion is achieved. Indeed, the costumes and award-worthy art direction do a fairly nice job of evoking the era. But while the verbal thrust and parry of the love triangle crackles with perfunctory sarcasm, you can almost imagine a laugh track refrain complementing it. There is no soul, no commitment.

The result is a stream of good-natured banter that, five years hence, playing on TV while you iron the laundry, will make for pleasant enough background noise. Problem is, Mr. Clooney had no great script. But he did have a potentially intriguing subject. Instead of running the same, tired old play, some scrambling in the backfield was in order.

A winning look at the nascency of pro football that happens to be funny would have been far preferable to a formulaic farce that just happens to be about pro football. But, in his position of movie quarterback, Clooney fails to read that signal and “Leatherheads” gets penalized many yards at the box office for possessing a mediocre game plan.

Leatherheads,” rated PG-13, is a Universal Pictures release directed by George Clooney and stars George Clooney, Renee Zellweger and John Krasinski. Running time: 114 minutes

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