“Leatherheads,” George Clooney’s third directorial effort, is a love letter to the good old days – the ones when the dames had moxie, the movies had a madcap energy and professional football was unfettered by pesky “rules.”
Clooney seems to be equally interested in proving all of his points at once, leaving a result more disjointed and confused than the final play in its final game. The film moves between a straightforward romantic comedy, an underdog sports story of sorts and occasional slapstick and Keystone Cops-esque screwball antics that represent some of the few inspired moments of the movie.
Jimmy “Dodge” Connolly (Clooney) is the star, part-owner and coach of the Duluth Bulldogs, a professional football team – like most professional football teams in 1925 – on the verge of folding. Dodge sees an opportunity to resuscitate not only the Bulldogs, but the entirety of professional football in Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) – Princeton football star, war hero and all-around good guy. Meanwhile, fast-talking ace reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), has been dispatched by her editors at the Chicago Tribune to uncover the truth about Rutherford’s somewhat dubious war record. Along with Rutherford’s sleazy manager CC Frazier (Jonathan Pryce), they all converge in a hotel lobby where the slick Connolly manages to not only charm Littleton into hating him – in a romantic comedy kind of way – but also to sign Rutherford to a big contract to play for the Bulldogs.
From its very beginning, the movie seems unsure of itself or of its direction. This lack of strong forward motion can, in part, be blamed on the rookie writing team of Rick Reilly and Duncan Brantley, who seem so obsessed with packing the movie with as many witticisms, double-meanings and smooth operations as possible; they forget that they are supposed to be telling some kind of coherent story. Clooney, the director, also seems to be unsure what to do with anyone but Clooney, the actor – he might try a little too hard to be the consummate charmer, but at least his character knows what he wants. There is very little plausible emotional development between any of the other characters in the movie: Rutherford alternates between a big, goofy grin and looking mildly confused about the action and Littleton is too busy firing off one-liners to make the romantic “connection” she has with Connolly seem like anything other than a construct more in service of how the movie should turn out than any sort of on-screen chemistry.
Ultimately, “Leatherheads” tries too hard to do too much and falls flat in pretty much every respect. There are some very amusing scenes, including one where Littleton and Connolly run from the police after the speakeasy they are in is raided, but for every one of those, there is a stinker, like the clumsily written fight scene between Connolly and Rutherford that immediately follows it. Were Clooney to pick one plotline to follow, or even more clearly define the movie’s style, “Leatherheads” could have been a success. However, it is torn in too many directions to be coherent and ends up drawn and quartered.