In reality, these sorts of things happen gradually over time and through the many and varied decisions of dozens, if not hundreds, of individuals each looking after their own self-interest. Sports, however, have always prided itself on its semi-mythological nature a nature the people involved have done their best to cultivate and that sort of dry historical treatment just won’t do. What’s called for is an unlikely yarn filled with ups, downs, laughs, romance, underdogs, World War I trench warfare and maybe even a little football, and that’s exactly what director and star George Clooney (“Good Night, And Good Luck.”) provides.
Set at the dawn of football, circa 1925, Clooney can’t resist making a period film out of his period film and, perhaps influenced a little by his various Coen Brothers collaborations, dives head first into classic screwball comedy territory with his little sports film.
Dodge Connelly is the last of the pro-football believers, several years past his prime and using his own money and gift for gab to keep his dreams of sports glory alive. Just when it seems all hope is lost and the league itself is doomed to go into receivership, the football gods answer with war and football hero Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), a picture perfect poster boy for the game. Seeing a chance for real glory and, more importantly, a way to keep the team together for just one more day, Dodge cons him into the game, realizing almost immediately that his last minute Hail Mary is going to change the game he loves forever.
Clooney actually does more than passable screwball, complete with fast-talking no nonsense Hawksian girl Friday Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) to stir up both leading men without ever feeling like just an addition to the plot, though she only gets half of her own story instead of a complete one.
Unfortunately, Clooney never seems to commit completely to the classic screwball tone he seems to want, veering wildly from farcical to earnest; so much so that when the zanier moments occur, even though they’re perfectly fine by themselves, they don’t really gel with the rest of the film. It doesn’t help that Clooney often uses them to break up much more serious story points, which works, but also highlights the disparity in tone.
That being said, it also boasts some fantastic character work. A lot of effort has been made to make the three leads as completely rounded as possible. None of them are completely good, nor are they completely bad. They’re very much human, capable of all the heights and lows that means. Clooney never takes the easy route to make one character easily likeable and promotable as ‘the hero’ at anyone else’s expense. The result is a movie that doesn’t really have an antagonist, except perhaps Carter’s amoral money grubbing agent (Jonathan Pryce), but instead three equally likeable leads who are inextricably at loggerheads. It’s far more complex than a movie like this normally is, and Clooney handles it well.
He’s done a version, usually a smarter version, of Dodge several times over the years and he’s got it down pat. His considerable screen presence doesn’t hurt either, and Zellweger’s story is much the same. The real find is Krasinski, who gets probably the most complex character in the film and does wonders with it. Carter could be, it almost feels like he should be, mindboggingly obnoxious, but Krasinski keeps him relatable and likeable throughout. For all his abilities and strength of character he’s not entirely a good guy, and for all his foibles he’s not a bad one. It’s remarkably well done on everyone’s part.
At the end of the day though, “Leatherheads” is still a light-hearted sports film, too light-hearted to rise above its limitations, and its inability to decide on a tone doesn’t help any, but it’s too well crafted and thought out to be anything less than good. As sports film go, it’s not particularly memorable, but for a Saturday afternoon diversion, it’s probably just the ticket.