From the very opening frame, featuring Universal Studios’ original logo, George Clooney’s “Leatherheads” feels old-fashioned . in a good way.
Call it a throwback, a homage or a rip-off, “Leatherheads” pilfers from the comedies of the ’30s and ’40s, with Clooney playing the role that would have been played by Cary Grant.
The film is nothing new and it’s not a gut-buster, but what it lacks in originality and laughs, “Leatherheads” makes up for in sheer bouncy goodwill; this is a film where the writers, director and actors clearly enjoyed themselves, and their energy is palpable.
“Leatherheads” takes place in 1925, when “professional football” was a punchline, a flimsy confederation of teams held together by the enthusiasm of players like Dodge Connelly (Clooney), who plays for the Duluth Bulldogs.
As opposed to the college football teams, who play to packed stadiums of adoring fans, the Bulldogs are relegated to holding their games in cattle pastures (there is a nice laugh at the beginning of the film where a cow is startled by a group of players running by).
The reason for this strange dichotomy has to do with the fact that college football is institutionalized, while professional football is a free-for-all, lacking in established rules or any semblance of athletic etiquette (games often end in hockey-like m/lées).
It looks like the end of the Bulldogs when their main sponsor pulls out, but the intrepid Connelly plans to get the team back on its financial feet but signing college football all-star, and World War I hero, Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) to play for Bulldogs.
And the plot wouldn’t be complete without “the girl,” and in “Leatherheads” that girl is Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), a sassy newspaper reporter assigned to uncover the truth about Rutherford’s less-than-reputable war record.
Of course, Lexie ends up romancing both Rutherford and Connelly.
As a director, Clooney keeps the film’s style somewhere between screwball and slapstick, with much of the laughs deriving from the energetic repartee between Connelly and Littleton. Both Clooney and Zellweger acquit themselves wonderfully, spitting out the superb ripostes of the film’s script with vim and vigor.
There is a great scene in a speakeasy where Littleton reprimands Connelly for cavorting with women that are too young for him, which inspires Connelly to reply, “Well, you’re only as young as the women you feel.”
Coming from any other actor that line might sound dirty, but Clooney makes it charming, forcing us to smile at his character’s incorrigible nature.
There’s nothing particularly inventive about “Leatherheads,” and the whole war record subplot goes on a little too long, but the film is, nevertheless, a fun romp in a time when movies desperately need to lighten up.
Entertainment writer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.