'Leatherheads'a bland throwback
Maybe the best offense in a real football game is a good defense. Not so in a movie about the early years of the sport, when pro football was a poor cousin to the college game.
George Clooney's "Leatherheads" plays everything safe, offering up all the solid defensive moves it needs. Great period costumes, jazzy music, 1920s slang, all of which combine for a nice re-creation of the feel of the era, with Renee Zellweger a sound choice to play a saucy reporter opposite Clooney's gridiron grunt.
Yet the movie never takes any risks, never goes on the offensive, never dances giddily along the sideline on some bold storytelling equivalent of a broken-field run the way you'd like to see in a throwback to old screwball comedies.
It's all perfectly pat, and sadly, perfectly boring, for the most part. In chronicling pro football's transition from laughable frivolity to true spectator sport in 1925, "Leatherheads" proves feather-light.
There's no figure in modern Hollywood more amiable and admirable than Clooney, and "Leatherheads" was a chance for him to lighten up as a filmmaker after his strange but sober directing debut "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" and his masterful drama "Good Night, and Good Luck."
Taking the lead role in a film he's directing for the first time, Clooney starts with a premise that you're just dying to love: His aptly named Dodge Connolly is an artful dodger trying to save his destitute Duluth Bulldogs and elevate the grungy pro circuit by signing flashy college star Carter "Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski).
The movie opens with Carter besieged by sportswriters wanting to know what he'll do after his final season at Princeton.
"You could always go pro," one reporter suggests.
There's a perfect pause, then Carter and his audience let out a belly laugh, no better way to summarize the shabby stature of professional football then, an era where teams such as Duluth groveled in turnip fields to a few dozen fans while college squads played in huge, sold-out stadiums.
That's about the biggest laugh "Leatherheads" musters, and it comes at the outset.
Zellweger's Chicago Tribune reporter Lexie Littleton comes on the scene to ferret out the real story of golden boy Carter, but in line with the ghosts of screwball past, Lexie ends up in a romantic triangle involving pretty boy Carter and wily Dodge.
The cast, particularly Clooney and Zellweger, deliver their lines in a suitably curt and affected style reminiscent of the lightning patter of 1930s comedies. Here and there, Clooney and his collaborators craft some funny sight gags, and the visual trappings are superb. There are colorful character actors, notably Clooney's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" colleagues Stephen Root and Wayne Duvall.
But Clooney falls back repetitively on gimmicky black-and-white photos and newspaper headlines to make transitions from scene to scene, and the dialogue is mostly bland.
The film leaves you longing for a few Hail Marys, but the filmmakers instead chose a safe, tedious ground game.
* "Leatherheads," now showing the the area, rated PG-13 for brief language. Running time: 114 minutes. Two stars out of four.