According to Dwight from TV’s The Office, rules are what separate humans from animals. In 1925, a new book of rules was enforced upon professional football, and the sport was changed forever. The gridiron was tamed, groomed, and all the fun was lost in the complicated intricacies of right and wrong. Leatherheads, George Clooney’s new film about the sport’s wakeup to the cold bath of regimentation, proves that rules are for idiots like Dwight.
This is the third time Clooney has starred in a film he’s directed, and is a far cry from the moody drama Good Night, and Good Luck and the stylistic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Leatherheads is an old-fashioned screwball comedy in the likes of It Happened One Night with a nostalgic gloss about the good old days of free-for-all pro football, where punching rivals and dirty tricks were all just a part of the game. Clooney is a longtime pro football player, Dodge Connelly, on the brink of losing the team he’s come to love. When financial troubles threaten to pull the plug on the Duluth Bulldogs pro team, Connelly decides to pitch pro football into the next level by dipping into the assets of the more respected college division; namely, Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford, war hero and spokesman for shaving cream and cigarettes. But Rutherford’s cards are preparing to fall thanks to a fellow serviceman who knows the truth about how heroic the poster boy really is, and Chicago Tribune writer Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) is on assignment to root out the scoop. The three cross paths nearly simultaneously, and their journeys merge as Rutherford takes Connelly’s offer to quit playing for Princeton and join the Bulldogs for a paying gig.
Upon first sight, Connelly is drawn to Littleton like a vampire to the jugular, and a triangle forms as the reporter flirts with the college star. The story heats up as Littleton’s deadline and Connelly’s affection looms, while Rutherford causes Connelly to feel inadequate in everything. On top of all this, somebody decides football should stick to strict rules. Connelly is threatened on both romantic and professional fronts and decides this old man’s not going down without a nasty fight.
Zellweger is curt, quick as a whip and plays well against Clooney’s well-timed quips; this is the actress’s second foray into the homage to screwball comedies, the first being the poptacular Down with Love. She plays an entirely different persona in each film, and is well-suited to Littleton’s feisty smarts. Clooney delivers an unfaltering comedic performance, throwing in surprising physical gags reminiscent of his role in O Brother, Where Art Thou? John Krasinski is nearly swallowed up in Clooney’s screen presence. Though the actor shows obvious comedic capability as Jim in The Office, his role falls flat here when drama is substituted for a straight-man. Thankfully, Rutherford is neither a token jock nor a real bad guy — he’s just a regular guy caught in a tough situation. We are spared the clichés in his character, but ripped off just the same.
Leatherheads is doused in a classic sepia glow and radiates all the right little details from the 20’s, from the poster ads and broadcaster prattle to the fantastic ragtime score by Randy Newman. Better editing would have shaped up this film — at 114 minutes, it runs too long for the slapstick comedy it tries to be. Really, if everyone surrounding the three main actors in the film would have lightened up and played it as a straight comedy instead of a dramedy, it could have been great. A perfect example of snappy editing smartly aligned with dialogue and acting is Zellweger’s previous screwball, Down with Love. Ah, but it’s just nice to have a film like this play to wide audiences in this day and age. Without Clooney’s name on it, this film probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day. When’s the last time you’ve seen a period piece old-style comedy become successful? Leatherheads is good for a giggle, and that’s why I have to say thank you, Mr. Clooney, for breaking the rules.
Now playing at select theaters in Champaign and Savoy
Runtime: 1h 54min — Rated PG-13 — Comedy/Drama