Throwback Comedy 'Leatherheads' Is a Real Winner

The football saga "Leatherheads," a nimble throwback to the screwball comedies of the 1930s, meets its goal.

Though not as clever as the Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks movies to which it pays tribute, it succeeds at what it sets out to be: smart-alecky, lightweight fun. The dialogue has the trademark rapid-fire banter in the style of the era, and there is considerable chemistry between the long-in-the-tooth footballer played by George Clooney (who also directed) and the sassy reporter played by Renee Zellweger.

It's a sports-themed romantic comedy set in the late 1920s during the early days of professional football. Clooney plays Dodge Connelly, a brash and witty quarterback of a faltering football team. The bumbling players lose their sponsor and disband, forced to take menial jobs. But the savvy Dodge is determined. Dreaming of packed stadiums, he devises an idea to draw crowds: Recruit a golden boy World War I hero and Ivy League gridiron star (John Krasinski) to ramp up his ragtag team. The boyishly handsome star of TV's "The Office" is just right for the role of Carter Rutherford, who is widely hailed for forcing a platoon of German soldiers to surrender to him.

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Certain that there's more to his war story, plucky reporter Lexie Littleton (Zellweger) hops aboard a train transporting the team and proceeds to pick Carter's brain in a flirty, if mannered, style. Carter and Dodge are intrigued by her perky, spitfire character and compete for her attention. But the ambitious Lexie is hellbent on getting her scoop.

If this all sounds familiar, that's the point. It's an amiable homage to such films as "His Girl Friday" and "It Happened One Night," and, to director Clooney's credit, there are no obvious anachronisms. The production design, language and general attitudes stay faithful to the era.

In contrast to his last directorial effort, "Good Night, and Good Luck," a period piece that was far more substantial, Clooney is on much less weighty turf -- as both an actor and director -- with "Leatherheads." His best performances have been in more powerful and complex movies such as "Syriana" and "Michael Clayton." Though he did a fine job in Steven Soderbergh's crime caper "Out of Sight" and hit all the right marks in the "Ocean's" series, his forte is not light comedy.

Still, he deserves credit for consistently tackling vastly different cinematic genres.

Speaking of tackles, brawling and fighting are a big part of this film. And several foot chases evoke images of the Keystone Kops. The film posits the notion that the once-freewheeling game of football has deteriorated as a spectator sport by becoming more rule-bound.

More amiable than witty and relying heavily on the likability and charm of its lead actors, "Leatherheads" scores more points as a retro romantic comedy than a football saga.

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