He belongs to two churches — film and football — and George Clooney worships at both in Leatherheads, a scrappy debate onhe rules we live by disguised as a screwball comedy. In his third shot at directing, following two savvy meditations on media and politics Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck), Clooney throws us a rowdy party of a movie. Or does he? Leatherheads could be subtitled We Only Kill the Things We Love. Clooney paints a vivid picture of pro football circa 1925 and the advent of the NFL, endorsements, free agency and contract money that could feed several starving countries. Clooney plays Dodge Connolly, an aging team captain who dodges growing up. He knows pro football is a joke. College football gets respect, but Dodge and his brawling, boozing teammates on the Duluth Bulldogs can't draw a crowd. Set in Minnesota and Chicago but hot in the Carolinas, the movie is rich with colorful forgotten history. And the script, a first for Sports Illustrated writers Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, gets the details right as Dodge schemes to have the Bulldogs and — much to his later horror — put pro football on the map.
There is also frillier business to attend to r,omance business, and here Clooney relies on film history. As Dodge hustles agent CC Frazier (Jonathan Pryce, doing shady to a turn) to get his college, Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski, on leave from The Office) to join the Bulldogs, he is also hustling reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) into his bed. Film buffs will soak up the aura of Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday in the sexual by play between Clooney and Zellweger. And when Lexie sets out to tarnish the Bullet's rep as a World War I hero, Preston Sturges' Hail the Conquering Hero comes to mind. How those allusions will relate to a generation weaned on Judd Apatow and boys who enjoy carnal knowledge of their mom's homemade American pie is anybody's guess. But Clooney keeps the pace bouncy and charm at the ready as he, Zellweger and the appealing Krasinski put a sweet spin on Bull Durham's erotic triangle. It excites the filmmaker in Clooney that the foreplay is verbal. He and Zellweger spar like they could go all night. OK, the screenwriters aren't yet in the pro leagues with dialogue. Having Dodge say "You're only as young as the women you feel" doesn't quite evoke Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story. Having Lexie retort "How quiet it must be at the Algonquin without here in Duluth" shows they know their limitations.
Leatherheads is lost on its game when it's in the game, and in the zone of Clooney's no-bull affection for the faces of his actors. Keith Loneker as runningback Big Gus and Tommy Hinkley as lineman Hardleg are standouts, as are Wayne Duvall as the Bulldogs coach, Peter Gerety as the newly appointed football commissioner and Stephen Root as a soused sportswriter. And props to Matt Bushell, whose Curly does a barroom rendition of the warn them "Over There" that reminds us these men have fought all kinds of battles. The climactic game in the rain — the field looking like Lake Michigan — is a rouser. It's here in the mud, with Dodge reading his team in rebellion against the new rules that will turn football into big business, that Clooney shows his hand. He's reminding us of something that paycheck sports have taken away: a team we can know by heart. As ever, Clooney sides with the outsiders who hold their shoulders against forces — in movies as well as athletics — that might take away their fun. Leatherheads revels in that fun. How's that for relatable?