Is Leatherheads a retro screwball comedy? A patriotic tribute? A sliver of sports history? It’s all those things and more. Alas, more is not necessarily better. With all director George Clooney’s (Good Night, and Good Luck) good intentions, Leatherheads falls flat like an uncoordinated smorgasbord — lots of lovely side dishes, but the main course is underdone and a little soupy.
It’s 1925. Flirty flappers, hidden flasks, open-air flivvers, the Jazz Age is in full swing and Randy Newman’s original music is the perfect accompaniment for a story that takes place before rigid rules and codes of ethics transformed everything in the country, including pro sports. Men who love to play football have few chances outside of college because pro football is in its infancy — it’s a haphazard past-time that’s more dirty tricks than discipline. Aging player/promoter, “Dodge” Connelly (George Clooney, Michael Clayton), uses his square-jawed Cary Grant magic to infuse pro football with the legitimacy it needs. He convinces college football’s golden boy, Carter “Bullet” Rutherford (John Krasinski, TV’s The Office), who’s also a decorated war hero, to leave Princeton for a year and play with the Duluth Bulldogs.
Enter ambitious Chicago Tribune news reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger, Cinderella Man). Taking cues from Rosalind Russell and Lois Lane, Lexie is determined to earn her muckraking stripes by unearthing the truth about young Rutherford’s war heroics against the Germans in the Argonne. She wins his heart while she roots out his secrets. Meanwhile “Dodge” decides that the snappy, scrappy Lexie is the gal who’s finally going to tame his wayward ways.
Leatherheads is a visual treat: dangly earrings, speakeasy fashions, elegant train cars, rolling presses, sepia-toned montages, mud-soaked football games, and especially slow-dancing close-ups with too-sexy George Clooney and spitfire Renée Zellwegger. But the movie never packs an emotional punch. While trying to pay homage to romantic comedies, social commentary, sports history and war veterans all at the same time, director (and uncredited screenwriter) Clooney allows the film to take too many detours when it should go full speed ahead. Even with its flaws, however, Leatherheads is such a pretty picture, and it’s so full of the charm of the Carolinas, you’re sure to enjoy it as much as I did.