Taking a break from his duties as class president of Hollywood to direct himself as an over-the-hill jock, George Clooney has gone for the third time in three films to a past American decade, this time the mid-1920s for an antic sports comedy set at the quaint, anarchistic dawn of professional football. Based on a script by two Sports Illustrated writers that’s been long in preproduction, Leatherheads begins with a light, mocking tone and burnished autumnal look, and its period details are rich, classy, and comforting—but hardly ever funny.
Clooney’s graying Dodge Connelly, a mainstay of the Duluth Bulldogs who dictates game stories to a soused sportswriter and will brawl with any upstart who calls him “grandpa,” sees the league teetering on the edge of collapse with teams folding and players returning to their hardscrabble jobs. Potential salvation comes when Dodge wheedles a contract from idolized Princeton star Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford (John Krasinski, freed from his dreadful haircut on The Office), a hero of the Great War and ubiquitous billboard-ad pitchman. Seats are filled and revenues climb, but tart-tongued Chicago reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) is soon tailing Bullet, following a lead that his war record is smoke and mirrors. She and Dodge lock horns, both men fall for her, mild violence and labored scheming ensue.
Given that Clooney managed his best Cary Grantish turn in the Coens’ brisk throwback farce Intolerable Cruelty, it borders on astonishing that his own screwball homage is so consistently leaden. Part of the failing is the warmed-over love-hate badinage between him and Zellweger: “I didn’t come over here to be insulted.” “Where do you usually go?” The plot heavily grinds away at the familiar romantic triangle and the intrigue around Bullet’s dubious combat glory for nearly all of its midsection, then bogs down in elegizing the taming of football’s roguish chaos; Bullet’s Machiavellian business manager (Jonathan Pryce in a thankless role) can be read as a villainous forefather of super-agents to come. Romance neglected in favor of simplistic sports nostalgia, the last reel veers back onto the playing field for a big-game showdown between Dodge’s gridiron primitivism and the regulated NFL-to-come where Bullet figures to thrive.
Clooney looks at ease in a wool cap on a motorcycle, and there are isolated sparks of wit (he does a great punched-in-the-face take), but he’s a bit too smooth and regal to register as a desperate and conniving journeyman. Zellweger squinches up her face and purses her lips in all her jousts; playing in the same milieu as Chicago‘s ditzy victim-turned-manipulator was within her reach, but a cutting Rosalind Russell type isn’t. Her scenes with Clooney are heavy on the leering and longing when they should snap and sting, inadequacy of the sub-His Girl Friday dialogue aside. Krasinski appeals as the camera-ready, teetotaling comer, but is hampered by the role’s blandness except for fleeting slapstick bits (a black-and-white flashback to what really happened in his Argonne trench is the movie’s best miniature).
It all ends in a muddy, supposedly clever last stand for Dodge and his imminently doomed style of football, but one wonders how this stale misfire fit into Clooney’s aesthetic game plan. His most imaginative stretch as a director remains the opening sequences of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, where young Chuck Barris’s eccentric ambition jibed giddily with his initiation in the TV empire of the ‘50s. His obvious love for old Hollywood genres notwithstanding, Clooney fails this time to find a heart or even an overarching joke amid the vintage roadsters and leather helmets. Call it embalmed screwball.