Retro football comedy drops the ball

Posted: April 04, 2008

From the sepia-toned Universal logo to the big-band soundtrack and even the slapstick speakeasy brawl, George Clooney's Leatherheads is a larky throwback to the breakneck screwballs of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. Problem is, it isn't breakneck enough.

Clooney, the closest thing modern Hollywood's got to Clark Gable, bats his lashes, wrinkles his brow, and woos, coos and dukes it out, with wiseguy charm. Set in 1925, in the wild, woolly, early days of professional football, when teams were sponsored by starch companies and turnout was good if 200 fans huddled in the bleachers, Leatherheads is an admirable, if not altogether successful affair.

Clooney and leading lady Renée Zellweger, as a tough-cookie reporter with a Veronica Lake coif and a Claudette Colbert attitude, play off each other nicely. And The Office's John Krasinski, in the role of a college gridiron star and war hero lured to the pros, has the lanky comportment and aw-shucks decency of a young Jimmy Stewart.

But someone should have held a stopwatch up while Clooney - in his third outing as director - shot his scenes, or kicked the cast in the shins to get them hoppin'. With the exception of a few sassy exchanges between Clooney and Zellweger (their first meeting, with Clooney pretending to be immersed in a copy of the Ladies' Home Journal, is a hoot), the action and arch dialogue feel a beat-and-a-half too long. Even the football games - with the teams in knickers and baggy jerseys, blocking and tossing on messy turf - aren't fleet of foot.

Loaded with vintage cars, one very cool motorbike with sidecar, and scores of extras in '20s hats and coats, Leatherheads is nothing if not affectionate as it pays homage to pictures like It Happened One Night and The Palm Beach Story. The set of a train's sleeping car shared by Clooney's Dodge Connolly and Zellweger's Lexie Littleton (even the names are retro) has walls that bob up, down and sidewise. The curtains of the couple's berths fly open and shut as the stars parry their quips, and quip their parries.

If the Keystone Kops police chase through a hotel, after Dodge and Lexie are rousted from an illegal gin joint, appears clunky and cartoonish, the payoff is sublime: a joke about suicide jumpers, dark and funny, provides the perfect getaway.

Leatherheads isn't all it's cracked up to be, and its neo-nostalgic look at the anything-goes era of pro football - before rules and regulations dulled up the game - feels kind of fake. But if you have a hankering for old-style Hollywood comedy and romance, and Turner Classic Movies is on a Steve McQueen or John Wayne jag, Leatherheads offers an agreeable substitute.


Leatherheads **1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by George Clooney. With George Clooney, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce and Renée Zellweger. Distributed by Universal Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 54 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (boozin' and brawlin', bad language, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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