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Alas, the Third Time isn’t the Charm

For his third directorial effort (Good Night, and Good Luck, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), actor/writer/producer/director George Clooney choose sportswriters-turned-first-time-screenwriters Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly’s period screwball comedy, Leatherheads, an homage-laden, occasionally engaging, sporadically entertaining, affectionately nostalgic celebration of the early days of professional football where players risked permanent injury for the sheer pleasure of playing the game and not for the pay (low or non-existent), the crowds (few and far between), or the prestige (none, really). In other words, professional football eighty years ago was nothing like it is today.

It’s 1925, the Great Depression is still several years away, but for Jimmy 'Dodge' Connelly (George Clooney), a middle-aged football player for the Duluth (as in Minnesota) Bulldogs, the end is near for his career, his team, and the near-bankrupt “professional” league they play in. With attendance at record lows and his team all but disbanded, Connelly approaches Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), a WWI hero and current Princeton running back famed for his speed, agility, uncanny ability to score touchdowns, and winning smile.

Although he’s looking forward to attending Yale Law School and a career at a prominent law firm, Rutherford is already a well-paid spokesman for several corporations. Connelly, however, manages to convince Rutherford and his manager, C.C. Frazier (Jonathan Pryce), to accept a short-term commitment to the Duluth Bulldogs by offering a win-win proposition: more fame and money for Rutherford (and Frazier) and a financially healthy professional league.

Almost immediately, Rutherford’s presence on the gridiron translates into box office receipts. All that adulation, however, comes with additional media scrutiny. The Chicago Tribune sends ace reporter, Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), to profile Rutherford, with special focus on his combat service and the Medal of Honor he won for defeating a platoon of German soldiers single-handedly. As Rutherford and Lexie spend more time together, romance seems in the offing, but Lexie’s undeniable attraction to Connelly (and vice versa) threaten to derail the Bulldogs’ chance at becoming a football team worthy of the word “professional.”

Clooney, as close to an old-school movie star as we have, seemed like a shoe-in for a period-set comedy-drama that mixes elements from various genres and sub-genres, sports, romantic comedies, and screwball comedies. Clooney’s undeniable talent, charm, and star power (of which others have rightly said, “Women want him, men want to be him”), however, aren’t enough to elevate Leatherheads beyond a misfire, albeit a sporadically engaging misfire that shows a lot of promise early on, only to squander that promise to slack performances, unenergetic pacing, and a screenplay that cribs shamelessly from Hollywood Golden Age comedies (e.g., Hail the Conquering Hero, The Miracle at Morgan Creek, His Girl Friday) without distilling what made those films entertaining to audiences then and now: crackling, punchy dialogue delivered at a frantic, anarchic pace by energetic, driven actors (and plenty of sexual tension too).

As bad as all that sounds, Leatherheads isn’t a total wash. Clooney is still Clooney. More often than not, he can elevate a line of dialogue from mediocrity to…well, something above mediocre (but not by much). John Krasinski may not be Clooney in the charisma department (heck, he’s no Tim Robbins, circa Bull Durham), but he pulls through with an engaging performance as a semi-naïve football player learning a few life lessons. Alas, Renée Zellweger is the weakest of the three leads. Whether she had difficulty in handling the faux-screwball dialogue or wasn’t particularly inspired to put more of herself into her performance, she comes close to being unwatchable as the ambitious, driven reporter hungry for a scope. That aside, at least Leatherheads does right by the period detail, lush, golden-hued cinematography, and 20’s era music, including Randy Newman’s early jazz score (Newman appears in a cameo as a speakeasy piano player).

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars