Movies continue to give the world of sports a bad name. After the disaster that was “Semi-Pro,” “Hollywood’s Sexiest Man Alive,” George Clooney, performs double duty in uneven early football screwball comedy, “Leatherheads.”
Exploring the early years of the fledgling professional league, Clooney stars as Duluth Bulldogs star player, Dodge Connelly. The league Connelly plays in is a rag-tag group of independent franchises that play games from city-to-city in front of sparse crowds for little to no money. It is not uncommon for franchises to fold in the blink of an eye because they can’t meet payroll and games are routinely played with the benefit of only one football.
Once it’s gone, games are generally forfeited.The only reason the games are publicized are because of over-the-hill reporters such as Connelly’s washed up friend, Suds (Stephen Root) who keep the league’s lightly-attended games in the public eye.
While the pro league is just surviving, the college game is booming. The biggest player in college football is war hero turned star athlete, Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski). Handsome, likable and heroic, his games draw crowds in excess of 40,000 to see him play. With the league about to fold, Connelly concocts a scheme with shady manager, CC Frazier (Jonathan Pryce) to have Rutherford join his professional team.
After a former Army buddy reveals a disparaging account questioning his heroism, newspaper reporter, Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) is assigned to get Rutherford’s real story. But a funny thing happens when she is spotted by the charming Connelly. Much like in the baseball comedy, “Bull Durham,” both Rutherford and Connelly vie for the affections of the quick-witted Littleton.
While the potential romance is in the forefront, Clooney’s direction of the football action is initially entertaining before it becomes repetitive and begins to run long. Much like the witty banter featured in an earlier screwball comedy, “Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day,” the movie crackles with energy when Zellweger and Clooney share scenes together. The two treat their dialogue like two seasoned tennis players just volleying back and forth with each other. Channeling both Clark Gable and Cary Grant, Clooney is devilishly handsome and clever as the “established” veteran player who must take a back seat to the younger and more popular Rutherford.
Although the story mirrors the rise of the sport with college star, Red Grange, “Leatherheads” is as interested in educating viewers on the birth of the modern NFL as comedian Will Ferrell was about the ABA in “Semi-Pro.” The stories are just a background for actors to play a little ball, have a little fun – and make a lot of money at our expense. With a tighter script and better pacing, “Leatherheads” could have been a much better film, but it appears that Clooney’s direction never matches his winning ability as an actor and as a result the film lacks the firm identity needed for it to succeed.
While Clooney’s aim was to recreate Grant and Katherine Hepburn, he probably would have done better if he would have simply settled for “Bull Durham’s” Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon. Now that was a sports movie that really, really worked!