Movie Review: Leatherheads
By Matthew Huntley
June 3, 2008

Watch your back! That's Pac-Man Jones!

Leatherheads bears a striking resemblance to the romantic comedies of the 1930s and '40s. It has the air of a Howard Hawks or Frank Capra picture that might have starred Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur, though it's perhaps inevitable it's not as good since the spirit and freshness of those decades have decayed over time. Modern filmmakers are restricted to imitating their feel instead of recreating it.

For a movie like Leatherheads, made in 2008, we can appreciate the nostalgia of the material more than the material itself. In this current era of Hollywood, this is best described as "vanilla" comedy; it's not riotously funny or inspired, but we can still be glad we saw it.

This is the third directing credit for George Clooney, though you wouldn't know it by watching the movie. Unlike Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or Good Night, and Good Luck, this one doesn't have the same ambition or compelling subject matter. Not that every George Clooney movie has to change the course of history, but when I think of how good an actor and director he can be (and he's perfectly suitable here, don't get me wrong), a movie like Leatherheads feels more like something he did in his spare time, in between the more significant projects.

The story takes place in 1925, when professional football was seen as a joke next to its collegiate counterpart. Tried-and-true rules for the sport hadn't yet been established and it was played by middle-aged men on cow pastures, or so the movie jokingly suggests. Jimmy "Dodge" Connelly (Clooney), like many of the players, is a man who only knows football, or maybe it's football he only cares to know. He never learned a trade in the The Great War and figured he'd just play ball for the Duluth Bulldogs the rest of his life.

But Dodge and the others face a crisis when their sponsor drops them due to diminishing interest and revenue. Nobody is paying to see the games and the sport only thrives in the college circuit, where Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) is the star player as well as a revered war hero, which isn't a bad combination in 1925.

Dodge thinks he can rejuvenate interest in pro ball if he recruits Carter to play, but he's not the only one chasing after him. A spunky little reporter from the Chicago Tribune named Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) is working on a story to expose the hometown hero as a fraud. It turns out his heroic efforts during the war were merely an accident and stroke of good luck. Carter's flashback story of what actually earned him the Medal of Honor gets the movie's biggest laugh, even though it's really only a healthy chuckle.

Like many romantic comedies from Hollywood's Golden Age, a screwballish love triangle forms between Dodge, Lexie and Carter. Admirers of the era will see bits and pieces borrowed from The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday, while Clooney and Zellweger do their best to capture the kind of the chemistry shared between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, among others.

While Clooney and Zellweger are fine actors, who possess their own discernible humor and charisma, their Dodge and Lexie seem more like imitations of the Gables, Colberts, Grants and Bacalls instead of characters specifically written for this story. They're still a pleasure to watch, but they're not exactly the real deal.

Clooney is one of Hollywood's smartest celebrities, but frankly, he's above the kind of romantic comedy where he gets punched in the face, blinks, and then falls down stupidly. He's not a slapstick actor. I wonder, exactly, what he hoped to accomplish with this picture. It's entertaining enough, sure, but it's also kind of bland and inconsequential. This is the first George Clooney-directed film that didn't seem to have a greater purpose and just because it's a comedy doesn't mean it shouldn't try to be special.

Leatherheads possesses an appreciable charm and nostalgia, but I'll probably forget about it within a month of writing this review. And to be fair, I think I'd feel the same even if it had come out 70 years ago. It gets lost in the shuffle of its genre as well as the movies to which it's paying obvious homage. The movie is enjoyable, yes, but also forgettable, which should make you appreciate Clooney's greater efforts even more.