In 1925, pro-football is barely a sport, beset with disorganization, instability, and few fans in contrast (as Leatherheads amusingly nudges the audience) to the very unifying, All-American college football. The professional Duluth Bulldogs, led by the older Dodge Connelly (George Clooney) 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). Rutherford is a gridiron star and hero of the Great War, with a past that includes a hidden personal fumble. Ready to break down the Carter Rutherford legend is tough cookie reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), who forms a lightly romantic triangle with the mass-appeal, boyish Rutherford and the rebellious, long-in-the-tooth Connelly.
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 – and Zellweger plays it well). The words are there for a nod to screwball, but unfortunately the cadence is lacking. Clooney seems too focused on the structural homage to '30s comedy, 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 films such as the 1926 silent Brown of Harvard and the 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 most every visual nuance of the film right.
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 Americans and the government as willing participants in the process.
Leatherheads gets surprisingly dark as Littleton investigates Rutherford. (The casting of the as-likable-as-Clooney Krasinski as Rutherford balances out the characters). 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.
Leatherheads falters in its balance of comedic homage and modern metaphor. The film should excel in the screwball arena, but instead it fumbles. The game is recovered, however, when Leatherheads tackles matters of substance. The result is not one for the ages, but it's entertaining nonetheless.
© Doug Jonhson
Leatherheads (2008). Dir.: George Clooney. Scr.: Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly. Cast: George Clooney, Renée Zellweger, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Root.