There is a scene at the beginning of George Clooney’s Leatherheads in which a cow, chewing its cud in placid vacuity, gazes in mild surprise at a clot of leather-helmeted bruisers falling all over each other, right in front of its face.
This, according to the movie, is what constituted professional football in 1925. It is the funniest scene in Leatherheads. That is not an alarming statement on the surface, until you realize that this movie aspires to be a rapid-fire wit machine, in the tradition of Capra, Sturges, and Hawks.
The screenplay by Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly follows the fortunes of the Duluth Bulldogs, which was laughingly called a top team in what was laughingly called professional football in the mid-1920s. The league was so impecunious that games were forfeited because the football was stolen; but what the teams lacked in money they compensated for in scrappiness, as delighted fans (such as they were) came to the games mainly to see what sort of underhanded tricks the players could come up with to win.
According to Brantley and Reilly, professional teams in those days folded regularly because of lack of funds, and when the Bulldogs meet their doom, star player Dodge Connelly (Clooney) casts around for a way to reassemble the old gang. Eventually he hits on one: persuade Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), Princeton’s star quarterback and a hero of the well-moneyed world of college football, to turn pro.
The film has already, emphatically, made the point that a college player turning pro in 1925 was like abdicating the throne of England to open a hot dog stand. The fast-talking Dodge, however, is able to persuade Rutherford’s agent CC Frazier (Jonathan Pryce)—himself a con man of no mean ability—that Rutherford joining the world of professional football is exactly the sort of publicity that both Rutherford and pro football could use.
From that point, Leatherheads tries to make itself out as a combination sports-centered con man movie and screwball romantic comedy. Just about everybody in the movie is trying to pull a con: Dodge and his teammates are constantly trying to one-up the opposing team on the field; Frazier is constantly jockeying for the best angles for himself and his client. Even the squeaky-clean Rutherford is—albeit reluctantly—stretching the truth a bit regarding his supposedly heroic record during World War I. A tipoff to the Chicago papers puts reporter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger) on Rutherford’s trail; she pulls a con herself, pretending to cover Rutherford’s entry into pro football while actually trying to get the true story of his war experiences.
According to the rules of such a movie, it’s inevitable that Lexie will excite the romantic interest of Dodge and Rutherford, and that they will do the same for her. It’s also according to the rules that Dodge and Lexie are clearly made for each other, but it takes them forever to realize it because they’re both fast-talking smartasses who get on each other’s nerves. (It’s the old Beatrice-and-Benedick Game, all over again.)
That’s the problem with Leatherheads. For a movie about people breaking all the rules, it plays according to the rules, very faithfully indeed. Nothing in it is objectionable—or surprising. According to Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, Rick Reilly and Duncan Brantley are longtime contributors to Sports Illustrated. The Internet Movie Database tells us that Reilly is also an ESPN sports interviewer whose sole previous screenwriting credit was an episode of the HBO sports sitcom Arli$$, while Brantley’s sole previous film credit of any sort was directing a short of Andy Griffith’s famous monologue, “What It Was, Was Football.” So Reilly and Brantley know their football, but there’s little indication that they know their comedy, either in their credits or in their screenplay. The dialogue tries to get by on speed to mask the paucity of freshness and wit, attempting to sound like His Girl Friday but coming across more like Captain Billy’s Whiz-Bang. It produces chuckles, but never a belly laugh. One line from the movie, spoken by Lexie, already has had a lot of exposure, thanks to the trailer: “Being the smoothest operator in Duluth is like being the world’s tallest midget, if you know what I mean.” At another point, here is Lexie dismissing Leonard, an unwanted suitor:
LEONARD: I didn’t come here to be insulted!
LEXIE: Oh, where do you go for that?
To quote a line from my dad, I kicked a slat out of my cradle the first time I heard that one.
The film’s action is similarly unexciting. George Clooney has made two wonderful films, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck, which clearly establish his bona fides as a gifted director. Leatherheads, however, fumbles precisely where it should score touchdown after touchdown: in its physical comedy. If you’ve ever seen a B-grade Western from the Fifties, you’ve seen Leatherheads’ barroom brawl. As for the football scenes, there are some good sight gags—most of them having to do with mud—but if you’ve seen the film’s trailer, you’ve already seen the best of them. Even Dodge’s wily, game-winning switcheroos, which should be hilarious, are blunted severely by oblique camerawork.
Clooney the director should have better served Clooney the actor. Clooney is a delightful throwback to the golden days of movies—an authentic star in the mold of Clark Gable and Cary Grant, totally at ease in front of a camera, who can make any role work through his airy charm and charisma. Except for Will Smith, it’s hard to think of any other contemporary actor who has anything like Clooney’s light yet authoritative touch. As the likable flim-flam man aptly named Dodge, Clooney is far and away the most compelling reason to see Leatherheads.
Renee Zellweger, an accomplished comedienne, also does fine here, though she needs to stop scrunching up her face so much. In Chicago, Zellweger gave us a memorable evocation of a Clara Bow-style bad girl; in Leatherheads, that particular act shows signs of wear, though it’s mostly the material that’s to blame. John Krasinski, one of Hollywood’s newest It Boys thanks to his success in The Office, is thoroughly pleasant here, but nothing more. All the other Duluth Bulldogs get little chance to make an impression, but a few supporting players make their presences known. Jonathan Pryce brings an elegant, witty formality to the devious Frazier, and Stephen Root is a stitch as a drunken sportswriter whose unspoken motto is, “My Bulldogs, Right or Wrong.” Peter Gerety, coming on late in the story as the very first commissioner of professional football, is sharp and vivid, but seems to have wandered into the wrong movie from the set of Law and Order.
A lot of the little details in Leatherheads don’t add up, from the chronology (wouldn’t a soldier in World War I, which ended in 1918, be a little long in the tooth to be a Princeton undergraduate in 1925?) to the hairstyles (namely the over-the-eye hairdo Zellweger sports in some scenes, about 15 years before Veronica Lake made it fashionable).
One of the saddest anachronisms is that one of Dodge’s teammates is African-American—something that would have gotten them all lynched in 1925, one of the peak membership years for the Ku Klux Klan.
Leatherheads is yet another example of a film that sounded good on paper, and that had all the right elements, but which failed at the most basic level. It’s not really bad, but its pleasures are pale and mild. Even Randy Newman’s score sounds like a Lullaby in Dixieland. That’s not exactly what you want from a football comedy. Like a Super Bowl game tied 0-0 at the end of the fourth quarter, Leatherheads promises excitement and fun, but leaves the fans snoozing in the bleachers.