George Clooney's considerable charisma and talent prevent his new comedy, Leatherheads, from being an unequivocal waste of time, but not by much.
The year is 1925 — you can tell by the film's phony old-timey photo montages. Clooney plays Jimmy "Dodge" Connolly, aging captain of the struggling Duluth Bulldogs pro football team. In a desperate bid to keep his team (and the pro sport) alive, he lures football superstar Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) from the college ranks into the pros with promises of financial glory. Meanwhile, suspicious Chicago reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) starts trailing the Bulldogs to uncover the scandalous truth about Rutherford's alleged World War I heroism.
Leatherheads is a loose, inoffensive film plagued by its own insignificance. The view of early football is glossed over; nobody emerges from these helmetless, padless scrums with anything worse than a hangnail. There's supposed to be some tension about the imposition of new rules for the sport, but the contests themselves don't matter; the film's final Big Game sequence is almost heroically inconsequential.
Rutherford's questionable back-story, when it is finally revealed, is supposed to undermine his clean-cut, All-American character, but his comeuppance hardly registers. Krasinski hardly registers either. With his aw-shucks platitudes and bright, dopey eyes, Rutherford looks and acts like a bigger moron than any of the ogres, oafs, coal miners, and misfits he calls his teammates.
He's no match for Zellweger's snappy reporter. And that's fine; you're rooting for Clooney the huckster to get her anyway. The most effective scene in Leatherheads is Lexie's initial hotel-lobby encounter with Dodge. Dressed in a long red dress that makes her look like a skinny, pouty fire hydrant, Zellweger sasses and spars with him in an escalating series of tawdry one-liners. The actors' delight in this silly, smart flirting is palpable; the pair blow such hot air into these dusty old jokes that it almost seems like they'd never been heard before.
A grab bag of ideas from several Hollywood eras, Leatherheads is set in the '20s, puffed up with gags and scenarios from '30s and '40s, but hazy and relaxed like an '80s or '90s Robert Altman ensemble piece. Visually, the film seems inspired by the apolitical, know-nothing historicism found in lesser Coen Brothers efforts like The Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. But Clooney the director doesn't share the Coen-brand smugness toward characters. With a pair of intriguing period pieces under his belt, though, he may eclipse them someday, because even when he's working with sub-par actors and stale material, he's a much more unselfish team player.