At the dawn of American pro football, the game was nothing like it is today, often a series of foul fights that devolved into muddy brawls. Determined to class up his team, 'Dodge' Connelly (George Clooney) recruits WWI hero and rising college star Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski, TV's "The Office"), but Carter repays him by going after Dodge's girl, Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger, "Miss Potter"), the cub reporter who in turn tries to prove that Carter's not all he's cracked up to be in "Leatherheads."
In his sophomore directorial bow, star George Clooney ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind") attempts a throwback to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and mostly misses. It would have been interesting to see what the Coen Brothers would have made of this project. Still, "Leatherheads" has its moments and is certainly an amiable little comedy.
Screenwriters Duncan Brantley ("What It Was Was Football") and sports biographer Rick Reilly lay their sports groundwork down, then mix in a classic romantic triangle and a newspaper scoop. Lexie's one tough broad who resists Dodge's charms but can't quite cool to the younger Carter. This conflict of interest ends up putting her right back into Dodge's arms when she confides in him what Carter's confided to her - the real (comedic) truth behind his war heroism. When her story is published, Carter's agent (Jonathan Pryce, "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End") cries foul and the new Commissioner Pete Harkin (Peter Gerety, "Charlie Wilson's War," "Stop-Loss") aims to lay the scandal to rest by demanding a retraction from the paper. It'll be no surprise who will use some sleight of hand to defend Lexie's honor, but there is a neat twist in how Carter's true war story is translated to the football field.
Mixing elements of everything from "His Girl Friday" to "The Three stooges," Clooney does attain some occasional sparkle, particularly in his repartee with former flame Zellweger, but their physical comedy shows its staging - the timing's not spot on. Clooney's better matched with Krasinski in an amusing fist fight scene and also knows the beats on visual animal gags (an astonished cow in the middle of play, the Duluth Bulldogs's mascot). Timing is also an issue with the film's general pacing, which seems to drag on setting up its cards before it knocks them down. The likes of Sleeper cars, newspaper headline montages and motorbikes rigged with sidecars are used for classic screwball flavor, but not everything works - sure, the titular headgear is amusing but the raccoon coat gag used after Carter joins the team dies on the vine.
Clooney is playing his Gable card big time here, all suave self awareness and slightly self deprecating sideways smile. As a filmmaker, he's made Zellweger look better than she has in years - we're distracted from the squint by the emphatic false eyelashes and the ruby redness of her kewpie doll mouth. She never really nails the staccato delivery of classic screwball but does well enough with some fast and funny bits. Krasinski is basically the straight man here and he plays his tarnished hero with all American naivety and charm. Jonathan Pryce doesn't do much as the underhanded agent, but Jack Thompson ("The Sum of Us," "The Assassination of Richard Nixon") exudes classic old time newspaperman as Lexie's boss and Stephen Root ("Office Space," "Drillbit Taylor") is a howl as the inebriated 'journalist' who covers Dodge's games.
"Leatherheads" is tromp l'oeil screwball, but even though it's not the real thing some of its fakery is fun.
Robin did not see this film.
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