Leatherheads

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George Clooney's "Leatherheads" is a movie you want to like. The Roaring '20s costumes, sets and music all look terrific, and a story about the early days of professional football -- a sport then relegated to college play -- is a fresh movie subject.

But Clooney, the film's director and star, can't make up his mind how to approach the story. One minute it's a romantic comedy. Then it switches to slapstick, then to screwball comedy before sliding into Frank Capra territory with a crusading female reporter and a phony hero before settling on a gridiron version of "The Natural," a tall tale about how legends are made. It's all over the place but never feels comfortable in its own period clothes.

Trying out all these comic subgenres takes time. The film overstays its welcome by a good 20 minutes, making the climactic game feel anti-climactic. Clooney and co-star Renee Zellweger certainly will lure customers, but story weaknesses and ill-defined characters will challenge their most ardent fans to root for anything other than a swift ending. Boxoffice prospects looks mediocre domestically, and you can forget about overseas.

The year is 1925, the same year Harold Lloyd made his classic "The Freshman," to which the football action looks surprisingly similar. Pro football is a pitiable thing, drawing dozens of fans, mostly tanked up on Prohibition hooch, and bored cows to tiny fields while college boys, paid only with scholarships, draw tens of thousands. Clooney's Dodge Connelly -- now that's a football moniker! -- aging star and guiding light of the Duluth Bulldogs, means to change all that.

He entices college star Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski) -- or to be accurate, his manager CC Frazier (Jonathan Pryce) -- to play for the Bulldogs. He is not only a football hero but also a World War I hero, having captured an entire German regiment (the details keep changing) single-handedly. Historical accuracy pretty much flies out the window here since a college player would've played pro under an assumed name, and he certainly would not have a manager.

Zellweger is the "His Girl Friday" news hen, Lexie Littleton, who is assigned to suss out the real story behind the war-hero act. In the process, she seemingly falls for both Dodge and Bullet, if only for their names alone. She gets her story, and the fate of pro football hangs on its accuracy -- but not really. In fact, far too much time is taken up by this dubious subplot that has nothing to do with pro football.

The parts never add up. The journalistic aspects are all stolen from "The Front Page" and "It Happened One Night" and feel tired. The chases, fisticuffs and pratfalls are exceedingly lame. And the romances never are convincing. Our Lexie wouldn't fall for either of these mugs.

The film shifts styles so often that it strips its gears. Characters turn up, often coincidentally, to push the story along, but the script by one-time Sports Illustrated colleagues Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly relies heavily on old movies and not enough on historical invention. The haphazard nature of the narrative speaks to the clumsiness of every unlikely plot turn and character.

Clooney's character -- part Clark Gable, part Cary Grant, part you name it -- is too shifty and conniving to be a rogue gentleman. Zellweger's goes way too misty-eyed at the prospect of marriage to fulfill the Rosalind Russell role. And Krasinski spends the entire movie being manipulated rather than allowed to assert a nature that is perhaps more heroic than he's given credit for.

The music is great fun, though -- a mix of era-perfect soft jazz and old standards -- while the design, perhaps a bit self-consciously, does put us in a '20s mood.         
LEATHERHEADS
Universal
A Smokehouse Pictures/Casey Silver production
Credits:
Director: George Clooney
Screenwriters: Duncan Brantley, Rick Reilly
Producers: Grant Heslov, Casey Silver
Executive producers: Barbara A. Hall, Jeffrey Silver, Bobby Newmyer, Sydney Pollack
Director of photography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Production designer: Jim Bissell
Music: Randy Newman
Costume designer: Louise Frogley
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
Cast:
Dodge Connelly: George Clooney
Lexie Littleton: Renee Zellweger
Carter "The Bullett" Rutherford: John Krasinski
CC Frazier: Jonathan Pryce
Suds: Stephen Root
Coach Ferguson: Wayne Duvall
Commissioner: Peter Gerety
Running time -- 114 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
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