HOLLYWOOD — Maybe the best offense in a real football game is a good defense. Not so in a movie about the early years of the sport, when pro football was a poor cousin to the college game.
George Clooney’s “Leatherheads” plays everything safe, offering up all the solid defensive moves it needs. Great period costumes, jazzy music, 1920s slang, all of which combine for a nice re-creation of the feel of the era, with Renee Zellweger a sound choice to play a saucy reporter opposite Clooney’s gridiron grunt.
Yet the movie never takes any risks, never goes on the offensive, never dances giddily along the sideline on some bold storytelling equivalent of a broken-field run the way you’d like to see in a throwback to old screwball comedies.
It’s all perfectly pat, and sadly, perfectly boring, for the most part. In chronicling pro football’s transition from laughable frivolity to true spectator sport in 1925, “Leatherheads” proves feather-light.
There’s no figure in modern Hollywood more amiable and admirable than Clooney, and “Leatherheads” was a chance for him to lighten up as a filmmaker after his strange but sober directing debut “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and his masterful drama “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
Taking the lead role in a film he’s directing for the first time, Clooney starts with a premise that you’re just dying to love: His aptly named Dodge Connolly is an artful dodger trying to save his destitute Duluth Bulldogs and elevate the grungy pro circuit by signing flashy college star Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski).
The movie opens with Carter besieged by sportswriters wanting to know what he’ll do after his final season at Princeton.
“You could always go pro,” one reporter suggests.
There’s a perfect pause, then Carter and his audience let out a belly laugh, no better way to summarize the shabby stature of professional football then, an era where teams such as Duluth groveled in turnip fields to a few dozen fans while college squads played in huge, sold-out stadiums.
That’s about the biggest laugh “Leatherheads” musters, and it’s never a promising sign when the best moment in a movie comes at the outset.
In a nod to the fast-talking journalists of such screwball-comedy classics as “The Philadelphia Story” and “His Girl Friday,” Zellweger’s Chicago Tribune reporter Lexie Littleton comes on the scene to ferret out the real story of golden boy Carter.
Touted as a World War I hero who single-handedly forced the surrender of a trench full of Germans, Carter seems the ideal poster boy to sell football tickets. But Lexie’s editor has an inside scoop that Carter’s war record may not be so shiny.
Also in line with the ghosts of screwball past, Lexie ends up in a romantic triangle involving pretty boy Carter and wily Dodge. Jonathan Pryce complicates the action for everyone as CC Frazier, Carter’s oily agent.
The cast, particularly Clooney and Zellweger, deliver their lines in a suitably curt and affected style reminiscent of the lightning patter of 1930s comedies. Yet the dialogue itself is surprisingly bland given that the screenplay comes from former Sports Illustrated reporters Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, the latter known as one of sportswriting’s premier humorists.
Here and there, Clooney and his collaborators craft some funny sight gags, and the visual trappings are superb, from the grand hotel lobbies and muddy football fields to the chugging trains and slightly ratty motorcycle and sidecar Dodge drives.
Randy Newman, the man behind such period scores as “Ragtime,” “Seabiscuit” and “The Natural,” has created another lively musical backdrop for “Leatherheads.” And the movie is filled with colorful character actors, a screwball-comedy staple, notably Clooney’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” colleagues Stephen Root and Wayne Duvall.
With all of that going for it, “Leatherheads” just never streaks downfield. Actor Clooney is lovable, but filmmaker Clooney can’t quite give the story the spark it needs, and he falls back repetitively on gimmicky black-and-white photos and newspaper headlines to make transitions from scene to scene.
The film leaves you longing for a few Hail Mary end-zone passes, while the filmmakers stick to a story that tries to pound it out with a safe, tedious ground game.
“Leatherheads,” a Universal release, is rated PG-13 for brief strong language. Running time: 114 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.