Directed by George Clooney. Starring George Clooney, Renée Zellweger, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Root. (2008, PG-13, 114 min.)

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., April 4, 2008

You can’t read one of Clooney’s endless People profiles without hearing the Cary Grant comparison, but here, he’s all Gable – same rakishness and stubble and tanned-leather basso profundo. Nearing 50, he’s still almost improbably puckish, but the picture – his third directorial effort – isn’t quite as fleet. Set in the 1920s, when the nation was still recovering from the Great War, Leatherheads charts, with what I presume is very little actual historical accuracy, the awkward birth of professional football. Clooney’s Dodge Connelly leads the rough-and-tumble Duluth Bulldogs, who break all the rules, but no bother – the limping-along pro league never had any rules to begin with. When the Bulldogs turn cash-poor and fan-deficient, Connelly cooks up a plan to save the team: enlist the services of war hero and Princeton star quarterback Carter “the Bullet” Rutherford (The Office’s Krasinski). Connelly’ll have to get in line, though – Chicago Tribune reporter Lexie Littleton (Zellweger, in a regrettable weave) is in hot pursuit of the Bullet, too, on a tip that the boy wonder maybe fibbed some on his war record. And there you have the makings of a crackerjack love triangle, with each leg entirely game – and faithful, too, to the period charms of lipsticked cigarettes and speakeasy brawls. (Krasinski, especially, with his wide, eager face and sweet, dumb-lug grin, feels like the happy accident of some tear in the time-space continuum.) Leatherheads comes practically gift-wrapped in goodwill – it’s a celebration of an American pastime (if not the American pastime) and a loving nod to the screwballs of yore. The film is appropriately scored, well-acted, and possessing of a handful of truly transportive moments. It's awfully agreeable – so why doesn’t it entirely work? I think it’s a question of comic timing. This kind of backward-glancing, even ga-ga-ing, material begs for barmy, and barmy begs for no brakes, but Leatherheads takes a full half-hour of stops and starts to find its footing. Even then, it skips from fizzy water to flat tap from scene to scene. In spirit, it’s right-on – knowing but never ironic – but in execution, Leatherheads is less sure. And when you set a scene in the rattling cage of a train-car sleeper – a tip of the hat to Sturges, Wilder, and Big Al Hitchcock – you’re only setting yourself up for failure.

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