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With all his political axe-grinding in projects like Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck, it's easy to forget that while George Clooney is a first-rate actor, he possesses something that many other first-rate, axe-grinding actors don't-star quality.
Clooney, when he wants to, can display all the charm and wit of a modern-day Cary Grant. And it is mainly due to his charisma that Leatherheads (rated PG-13 for language), a 1930s-style comedy about 1920s-era football, manages to stay afloat despite several failings.
In a time when the popularity of college football far outweighed that of its professional counterpart, pro running back Dodge Connelly (Clooney) pulls every trick in the book to keep his team, the Duluth Bulldogs, afloat. After overhearing that Ivy League games pull in more than 40,000 ticket buyers, he devises a plan to recruit Princeton quarterback Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) to resuscitate his dying league.
Rutherford, a hero on the football field and on the combat field, proves to be the perfect choice. The apple-cheeked young patriot is so popular across the country, his Brylcreemed visage appears on billboards for everything from razors to cigarettes (a running and effective gag is that a person could be an all-American icon and a shill for cigarettes in those days). Once his oily agent secures the league's first astronomical salary, Carter hits the roads with Connelly, and in the process of trying to revive the sport the two accidentally reinvent it.
Of course, a screwball comedy cannot live by athletics alone. So before pulling out, smart-aleck reporter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger) joins the caravan and becomes the peak of a little love triangle. Will she choose the simple, upstanding war hero or the devious, aging playboy? The answer's fairly obvious, but the dialogue exchanged between Clooney and Zellweger as the story gets there crackles with old-timey fun. And the resolution will bring a smile to the face of movie lovers who remember how quickly Doris Day's fiercely independent working gals melted when confronted with homes and hearths offered by Rock Hudson.
This kind of smart, nostalgic humor is where Clooney, who directs as well stars, scores. However, he fumbles when he tries to go broader with his comedy, taking it from screwball to cornball. Scenes where he and Zellweger escape from the police by knocking them out, stealing their uniforms, and hiding behind mannequins look like something a Three's Company writer would have rejected as too hackey. Thankfully, such painful sequences are few and short-lived. Leatherheads' other problem is a bit more bothersome.
The audience most likely to enjoy this film-fans of classic romantic comedies like It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday to which Leatherheads pays homage-are most likely to be put off by a smattering of obscenities. They don't constitute much compared to the content today's moviegoers have grown desensitized to, but they feel more than inappropriate, they feel anachronistic. It's hard to imagine that even a plucky gal like Lexie would comfortably take the Lord's name in vain in public in the roaring '20s. A cynical critic might even wonder whether Clooney included offensive outbursts just to avoid a PG rating. At least fans of the genre can take comfort in the fact that while Lexie's verbal standards are occasionally lax, her sexual standards remain intact.