Leatherheads (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There's a rule in Hollywood: spring is for baseball films; fall is for football films. It's a time-honored tradition that makes sense when one considers the seasonal popularity of the sports, but Leatherheads flouts it. This is a football-themed film entering multiplexes during baseball's opening week. (The only ones interested in football now are the draftniks.) It's easy enough to justify when one considers that the football aspects of Leatherheads are largely cosmetic. It's not a sports movie per se (although it does climax with a "big game moment"). First and foremost, this is a throwback screwball comedy with '40s sensibilities (despite being set in the '20s). Still, there's enough on-field action that one has to wonder if the executives at Universal were aware that this is not the optimum time of the year to release this. Spring, when a young man's fancy turns to… the origins of the NFL? I wonder what John Fogerty would think of that.

Release timing issues aside, Leatherheads is a pleasant enough comedy - one of those movies that offers plenty of smiles and warmhearted chuckles but no big belly laughs. The dialogue in particular is rich and witty, and delivered in a rat-a-tat fashion that demands perfect timing. The verbal jousting between George Clooney and Renée Zellweger intentionally echoes the battles between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn that lit up the screens more than a half-century ago. The occasional profanity notwithstanding, this is an old-fashioned film that may leave younger viewers scratching their heads. Leatherheads is carefully crafted and works on its own terms, but it's not Clooney's most accessible movie. (Although, at least as a director, mainstream appeal has not been his primary goal.)

It's 1925 and professional football has yet to evolve to the point where it's more than a sideshow played on torn-up rented fields in front of collapsing, mostly empty grandstands. The college game thrives but there's no future for those who want to play past graduation. Along comes aging player Dodge Connelly (Clooney), who has an idea, and he approaches sports promoter C.C. Frazier (Jonathan Pryce) with his proposal. He wants to recruit star university player Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), a decorated war hero and pin-up boy, to play for the Duluth Bulldogs for a guaranteed $10,000 per game. The deal is quickly inked and professional football goes from a blip on the back page of the sports section to front page material. Along with Carter comes newswoman Lexie Littleton (Zellweger), who's digging into Carter's background to uncover the truth about his supposed WWI exploits. She and Dodge clash, but the sparks are evident from their first meeting.

Despite its comedic roots, Leatherheads briefly touches on a couple of intriguing issues, although neither is pursued with great vigor. Clooney emphasizes an element that was the point of Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers - that when heroes don't exist, the media will create them. In Carter's case, the truth doesn't match the legend, but even many who know are willing to look the other way. A telling point is also made about the impact of money on sports. Leatherheads is in part about the transformation of football from a game to a business and the way in which the injection of serious money into the sport leeches away the fun. Dodge is an old-timer, one who's out there to ignore the rules and enjoy himself. Carter, the well-groomed, serious professional, represents the future.

Clooney and Zellweger play off each other perfectly, delivering their dialogue with the rhythm of a well-choreographed dance and falling in love in the time-honored tradition of '40s romantic comedies. Leatherheads' morality wouldn't violate the Hays Code. The pinnacle of their romance is a kiss and when they "sleep together," it's in separate beds. The two mesh so well, it's hard to believe this is the first time they have been paired together on-screen. (According to the tabloids, they were at one time paired together off-screen.) There's even a moment when Clooney conspires with his co-star to poke fun at his reputation for hooking up with younger women.

Leatherheads runs a little too long with the last act feeling a little belabored. By that time, the breezy freshness that characterizes the first two-thirds has worn thin. Nevertheless, even at its most serious (which is never very serious), the movie retains its sense of light charm. Screwball comedies are out of vogue (and have been for decades), but this is probably as well-made as one could hope for in today's cinematic climate. It's an enjoyable diversion.

Leatherheads (United States, 2008)

Director: George Clooney
Cast: George Clooney, Renée Zellweger, Jonathan Pryce, John Krasinski
Screenplay: Duncan Brantley & Rick Reilly
Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Music: Randy Newman
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: 2008-04-04
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1