In Leatherheads, George Clooney proves he’s no Cary Grant, although it’s not for his lack of cool behavior, movie-star panache or swooning romanticism. Despite all his throwback charms, Clooney firmly plants himself in the here and now with his comedic moments in Leatherheads, which he also directed and produced.
As in O Brother, Where Art Thou, Clooney’s eyebrows are perpetually arched at exaggerated angles. It’s a small, but noticeable and conscientious, gesture that occasionally creates distance in a comedy that’s clearly not meant to spoof. Though even when it’s self-aware, Leatherheads is self-assured — a fizzy concoction that mostly hearkens back to golden-era filmmaking.
It’s three fingers of Billy Wilder and one of Frank Capra shaken with the Coen Brothers and topped off with a splash of Ron Shelton. Caffeinated zingers abound, and Clooney and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel have given it a sumptuous, cream soda sheen.
In 1925 America, college football is all the rage, propelled by the Red Grange-esque Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski of The Office). Both the toast of Princeton and a beloved WWI hero, Carter commands crowds and endorsements — everything floundering pro football lacks.
Forget big-ticket sponsorship. Sometimes, the Duluth Bulldogs don’t even have a ball to play with. Led by Jimmy “Dodge” Connelly (Clooney), they’re hardscrabble brawlers that revel in dirty play while chasing the dream of escaping farm fields and sooty mines. But their foes fold one by one until, eventually, the Bulldogs’ cash runs out, too.
So Dodge employs his only trade — pleading his case to Carter and slimy agent CC Frazier (Jonathan Pryce) about investing in pro football and bringing Carter to Duluth. After all, Princeton’s not paying Carter for the prestige he brings. Carter proves a shot in the arm for attendance, but also attracts Congressional rule makers seeking to bring as much rigidity to the game as they have to Prohibition. (Mason-jar moonshine is one of many sharp period details.)
Meanwhile, Carter’s mythologized war-hero story (in which he singlehandedly forced Germans to surrender) comes under scrutiny from intrepid Chicago reporter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger). It’s not quite Bull Durham, but Lexie falls a little for Carter (to whom Krasinski brings great conviction as a man trapped by mythology beyond his control) and a lot for Dodge.
Naturally, Clooney and Zellweger trade sharp-tongued dialogue before locking lips. Zellweger often is in her best element doing romantic comedy of any era, and this is no exception. And Clooney works his customary lady-killing charm in two scenes — one on a train that recalls Some Like It Hot and another in a speakeasy (which gives way to a riotous raid from which they escape).
Clooney is scratching his jock itch, to be sure, but Leatherheads is being a tad oversold as a football tale. Sure, there’s a prerequisite big game (with meaning and modern relevancy that would make Shelton smile) and fun on-field shenanigans from Keith Loneker as a brute-force defender.
Yet, the machinery of the government cranks mightily under its veneer, as it would in any socially conscious comedy of the 1930s and ’40s. And, in the way our legislative body becomes a pro-sports interloper, Rick Reilly and Duncan Brantley’s screenplay couldn’t feel any more “now.”