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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Leatherheads

George Clooney’s football follies

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In the 1920s, college football was just for fun and professional football was a ma-and-pa business. It was a game played by men in scratchy jerseys wearing chin-strap leather helmets that might—with any luck—cushion a blow to the head. Football was still a fast and loose sport. Many fans might have concurred with Dodge Connelly (George Clooney), a member of the Duluth Bulldogs in the period-comedy Leatherheads, when he declares, “Rules will ruin the game.” Along with the influx of corporate money, inflated salaries, stadium-naming rights, luxury sky boxes...

Some critics have compared Leatherheads to the Howard Hawks-George Cukor screwball comedies of the 1930s. Seen in that light, the film falls short because, despite the witty repartee between Dodge and ace girl reporter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger), the pace is insufficiently manic. A better comparison for this Clooney-directed entertainment is one of its probable inspirations, The Sting. Although it lacks a little of The Sting’s sparkle, it shares with it a slightly hyper-real, just larger-than-life recreation of America between the world wars. Randy Newman’s jazz-matazz score sets the same jolly tone as Marvin Hamlisch’s anachronistic variations on Scott Joplin.

The ruggedly handsome Clooney plays Dodge as a clever man depending on his wits, on the field and off, more than his brawn. When affecting puzzlement and striking a dapper pose, Clooney channels a bit of Cary Grant. Zellweger’s character is cut from the Rosalind Russell pattern of tough-talking dames breathlessly navigating the cigar smoke of a man’s world. She is a Chicago Tribune reporter trying to rise in the ranks by exposing the Bulldogs’ star player, a Princeton man called Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), for a fake. He won a medal during World War I, but his derring-do smells as fishy as the story woven around Pvt. Jessica Lynch in the Iraq war. She finds Carter to be a decent chap caught up in an exaggeration spun in the name of patriotism. He falls in love with her. Lexie is conflicted about writing her expos.

And despite her tough if stylish armor, her show of disdain, Lexie is drawn to Dodge’s bright charm. “How quiet it must be at the Algonquin with you here in Duluth,” she tells Dodge in a dry put-down, trying to puncture the sunny balloon of his self-confidence. But he isn’t easily dissuaded. Sometimes repulsion is a sign of attraction in the comedy of the sexes.

With its speak-easies and patina of easy Roaring Twenties corruption, its bungling cops and daring hijinks, romantic rivalry and slinky moments of seduction, Leatherheads delivers two solid hours of old-fashioned entertainment even as it wonders about the chilling effect of too much money on sports or any other field of endeavor.

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