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Those screwball comedies from the 1930s that we watch today -- His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, It Happened One Night--make the whole thing seem effortless. Dames and fellas trade barbs and run from set-up to set-up, dispatching with political scandals, busybodies and even escaped leopards without breaking a sweat in their tailored suits. But for every screwball classic there are half a dozen forgotten misfires, proof that keeping up the energy and zing of one of these things is really hard. They don’t make ‘em like Howard Hawks and Cary Grant anymore, but even back then they didn’t make too many of them to begin with.
George Clooney is the closest thing we have to Cary Grant, but as smooth and suave as he is at everything else he does, he struggles with Leatherheads, his own take on the screwball comedies of days gone by. As a star Clooney is in his element, but as a director he’s strained, and Leatherheads ends up as a movie that walks and talks like a screwball comedy, but plays about as funny as a college midterm on The Philadelphia Story.
Set in 1925, at the birth of professional football, the film stars Clooney as Dodge Connelly, a pro football player and manager trying to make an honest league out of his beloved sport. The money is running out though, and most Americans aren’t interested in watching a bunch of roughnecks beat each other up on the field. As a last-ditch effort Connelly hires Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), a war hero, Princeton football player, and Burma Shave spokesman. He’s the full package, and just the kind of publicity stunt the Duluth Bulldogs need to make it.
But Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger) has other plans. The brassy reporter from a Chicago newspaper has a tip that Rutherford might not be the war hero he claims to be, so she joins the Bulldogs on their train as they travel from game to game, snuggling up to Carter in hopes of getting the scoop. In the meantime though, she falls for Dodge’s puppy brown eyes, and find herself stuck between getting the story and ruining the team.
It’s a classic setup—love triangle, double-crossing, manly envy—but screenwriters Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly don’t take it anywhere. Lexie and Carter’s romance never really takes off, and while she and Dodge exchange some great witty repartee, there’s not much of a relationship here. The film’s rough-and-tumble football scenes are funny, but never incorporate the kind of slapstick you’d expect, and even the climatic fight between Dodge and Carter lacks, well, punch. It’s as if every scene goes on a few seconds too long, and every line is spoken at half the speed it should be.
To keep up its breakneck pace a screwball comedy is usually densely plotted, but Leatherheads meanders along, without a climactic game or other event to push the whole thing to the finish line. There is a big game eventually, but by that point the steam has long since been let out, and what could have been predictable and fun becomes, simply, boring.
There’s a lot of fun to be had watching Krasinski and Clooney spar, and even Zellweger plays along well enough despite being miscast. The laughs exist in Leatherheads, but they are so few and far-between that the comedy pace never gets rolling. An old-fashioned story set at modern comedy’s sluggish pace, Leatherheads is in many ways the worst of both worlds—except for Clooney, of course, who despite everything still seems at home in both.