Leatherheads has many likable qualities going for it: George Clooney, football, terrific Roaring '20s designs, "Jim" from The Office, Randy Newman's piano noodlings, even Renee Zellweger for a change.
On paper, Leatherheads looks like a sure winner. What's on the screen is an entirely different matter. Replicating the classic screwball comedy spirit is tougher than anyone associated with this movie apparently wanted to believe.
Dialogue that should bounce between characters like a furious pingpong game rarely does. The battle of the sexes seldom rises above a pouting match. Side characters who should handle funny stuff lack the material for it, leaving pretty folks at center stage distracted by a need to yuk it up.
As a director, Clooney should know better. He recalls little from working in a Preston Sturges vein with the Coen brothers on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, or viewing their textbook tribute to the screwball genre, The Hudsucker Proxy. Clooney doesn't even seem interested in making a sports movie except that a uniform hugs his manly figure and the helmets look goofy.
As screwball comedy, Leatherheads is all wind-up and no pitch.
Problems are evident from the opening credits when a disinterested cow gets the only laughs during an establishing football game. Clooney plays Dodge Connolly, aging star of the Duluth Bulldogs pro team before anything about the sport was professional except meager pay. Fans are nearly nonexistent and usually drunk. Games end if a kid steals the only ball.
We never get a sense of why Dodge continues playing in such circumstances, or how he got there. Leatherheads needs a scene like Crash Davis' waxing poetic on baseball in Bull Durham, showing why heading over the hill can be a fun ride.
Meanwhile, college football flourishes with stars like Carter "the Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski), a galloping ghost also hailed as a World War I hero. Carter supposedly captured an entire German platoon single-handedly. Zellweger fails at the Rosalind Russell routine as Lexie Littleton, a Front Page-style reporter aiming to prove the Bullet is a fraud. Watch Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy for the proper way to play tough as nails yet privately tender.
Dodge believes signing Carter to play for the Bulldogs can save the sport, and more importantly his career. Dodge strikes a deal with the Bullet's sneaky agent (Jonathan Pryce) and Lexie is part of the bargain, tagging along under the pretense of writing a hero's tribute. A promising love triangle gets stretched into a clumsy trapezoid by all the deceptions.
Clooney maintains his Cary Grant charm, undercutting his virility with silly business. Krasinski is a complete dud, so bland that neither claim of Carter's heroism is credible, and his wishy-washy honesty switches too often. No other players have any distinguishing characteristics except size.
Leatherheads doesn't even get the football right, despite two Sports Illustrated veterans writing the screenplay. Nobody had an agent in 1925. There never seems to be more than two pro teams in business. We hear references to dirty plays with catchy names that are never demonstrated. The anticlimactic "big game" doesn't feel like one, all mud and smug glances between Dodge and Carter.
Clooney is more concerned with period styling than cumulative comedy, romance or sports lunacy. Leatherheads is about football but all it ever does is punt.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.