- Leatherheads (2008) movie review: Starring a trio of capable performers – actor-director George Clooney, Renée Zellweger, John Krasinski – this mix of romantic comedy and sociopolitical drama with a 1920s football-field setting is most effective in its more serious moments.
Leatherheads movie review: George Clooney’s football romantic comedy-drama at its best when scoring sociopolitical points
In 1925, pro-football is barely a sport, beset with disorganization, instability, and few fans, in contrast to – as actor-director George Clooney’s Leatherheads amusingly nudges the audience – the unifying All-American college football.
Led by the older Dodge Connelly (Clooney), the professional Duluth Bulldogs plays fun and plays well, but must on occasion forfeit games against opponents who have folded financially.
Connelly concocts a plan to save his team – and by extension, the pro game – by recruiting college player Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), a gridiron star and hero of the Great War. Rutherford also comes with a past that includes a hidden personal fumble.
Ready to break down the Carter Rutherford legend is tough cookie reporter Lexie Littleton (aptly played by Renée Zellweger), who forms a lightly romantic triangle with the mass-appeal, boyish Rutherford and the rebellious, long-in-the-tooth Connelly. Note that the casting of the as-likable-as-Clooney John Krasinski as Rutherford balances out the characters.
Uneven screwball homage
Director Clooney, who also reportedly polished Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly’s screenplay, watched quite a few screwball comedies in preparation for Leatherheads, and in the written script there is certainly zing of banter – particularly with the Littleton character.
Unfortunately, the words are there for a nod to screwball, but the cadence is lacking. Clooney seems too focused on the structural homage to 1930s comedy, while executing its rhythms and timing unevenly.
The romance is about as affable as its director-star, but never anything more and at times even less than that. The better comedic elements of Leatherheads emerge on the playing field, where the joy of movies such as Jack Conway’s 1926 silent Brown of Harvard and David Butler’s 1936 college comedy Pigskin Parade is translated well.
The fun of these moments, however, exists primarily in comparison to professional football today. Clooney approaches the past as depicted on film with admirable care, but in doing so he favors the methodical over the instinctual. Still, he gets almost every visual nuance right.
The all-around dishonesty of hero worship
That said, Leatherheads works better as a look at hero-creation. A smart parallel is drawn between war heroes and sports stars, and Clooney ups the ante by holding responsible both the American government and Americans in general as willing participants in the process.
In fact, Leatherheads gets surprisingly dark as Littleton investigates Rutherford. This backstory allows the film to make a comparison between war and sports that culminates in a well-constructed final scrimmage sequence that is as clever as it is unsettling.
Knowing the vocal, liberal politics of George Clooney leaves no doubt that the director wants the audience to transfer the film’s concept into the present – the Pat Tillman controversy springs immediately to mind.
Uneasy comedy-drama combo
Leatherheads falters in its balance of comedic homage and modern metaphor. The film should have excelled in the screwball arena, but instead it fumbles.
The game is recovered, however, when Leatherheads tackles matters of substance. The final result is not one for the ages, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.
Director: George Clooney.
Screenplay: Duncan Brantley & Rick Reilly.
Cast: George Clooney. Renée Zellweger. John Krasinski. Jonathan Pryce. Stephen Root. Jack Thompson. Max Casella. Marian Seldes. Robert Baker. JD Cullum. Ryan Shively. Randy Newman. Grant Heslov.
“Leatherheads (2008) Movie Review: George Clooney Directs & Stars in Uneven Football Comedy-Drama” review text © Doug Jonhson; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Leatherheads (2008) Movie Review” endnotes
Despite its name cast, Leatherheads turned out to be a major box office flop.
Renée Zellweger and George Clooney Leatherheads movie image: Universal Pictures.
“Leatherheads (2008) Movie Review: George Clooney Directs & Stars in Uneven Football Comedy-Drama” last updated in August 2022.