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Headbangers 

When its trailers first began to run in theaters, I had several people tell me how much they wanted to see Leatherheads. I felt the same way. The picture had a great period look and promised romantic comedy with two of American cinema's biggest stars in a story about the early days of professional football, a topic Hollywood hadn't dealt with previously. Having seen the whole film, I can attest that all the promised elements are indeed present but that all the best scenes are in the trailers. Written by Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly and directed by George Clooney, Leatherheads is the story of aging running back Jimmy 'Dodge" Connelly (Clooney) and his financially fragile Duluth Bulldogs. The year is 1925, and professional football is anything but well established. The college game draws fans by the tens of thousands and fills concrete stadiums. The pro game is played in cow pastures and can't fill rickety wooden bleachers. The players love the sport, but it's never clear if they'll get paid because all the professional teams are so fiscally unstable. The Bulldogs might ride a train from Minnesota to Ohio only to find that their opponents have gone out of business. The laughable shoestring nature of things is established in the early going when the Bulldogs have to forfeit a game in which they hold a decisive lead after a kid runs off with the home squad's only football.

To save his team, Dodge decides to convince Princeton running back Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) to join the Bulldogs. Rutherford is the college game's greatest star, his fame enhanced by his war record. Rutherford dropped out of Princeton to fight in World War I and returned home a Medal of Honor winner after single-handedly capturing an entire German platoon. I can't quite account for the funky passage of time here. World War I ended in 1918, and it's now seven years later. So Rutherford has been in college for a long time. Moreover, since Rutherford's hard-charging agent (Jonathan Pryce) has already landed him endorsements for every product from chocolate bars to cigarettes to razors, his smiling mug on every billboard from Washington to Wyoming, it is never clear there's any financial advantage for the Princeton star to abruptly turn pro. But Leatherheads is never a film that asks to be taken seriously, so we just note the odd math in years and dollars and move on.

In the second-act twist, just about the time Rutherford arrives to tote the pigskin for Duluth, a rumor emerges that his war exploits are fraudulent. To discover the truth, the Chicago Tribune dispatches ace reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) to get the story. Lexie will remind viewers most of all of Rosalind Russell's fast-talking, nascent feminist scribe Hildy Johnson in Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday, though Zellweger tosses in some side-mouth sarcasm that recalls Barbara Stanwyck in just about anything.

Lexie regards herself as a tough-as-nails professional with no tolerance for nonsense and no interest in nuance. She intends to get the story and get back to Chicago to claim her promised promotion. But as we know, in Hollywood, hard female exteriors are only covers for yearning romantic hearts. So who is Lexie going to fall for, the youthful and largely pure of heart Carter Rutherford or the seasoned and reliably calculating Dodge Connelly, her equivalent of Hildy's choice between Ralph Bellamy and Cary Grant? If you don't know the answer, then you haven't watched a lot of movies.

There can be little doubt that Clooney intends Leatherheads to be a screwball comedy in the tradition of those light romantic farces of the 1930s and early '40s made by Hawks, Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), Ernst Lubitsch (To Be or Not to Be), George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story) and Preston Sturges (The Palm Beach Story). To that end, it has whimsical charm, brisk dialogue and attractive players. It aims to please and creates a world where nothing bruises. People punch each other in the face and bash beer bottles over heads without leaving a scratch. Unfortunately, Leatherheads doesn't leave much of a mark on its viewers, either. Fun as it is, His Girl Friday really does have something to say about professional women. Well made as it is, Leatherheads doesn't have anything to say about anything. And from a guy like Clooney, who has recently starred in Michael Clayton and Syriana and directed Good Night, and Good Luck, that's a little unexpected and disappointing.

click to enlarge Dodge Connelly (George Clooney) recruits Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) to play professional football, but they compete for the same woman. - 2008 UNIVERSAL PICTURES
  • 2008 Universal Pictures
  • Dodge Connelly (George Clooney) recruits Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) to play professional football, but they compete for the same woman.
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