A film almost satisfyingly filled with small amusements, Leatherheads gets its biggest laugh out of the way early on. Playing a war hero turned college-football star, John Krasinski scores an impressive touchdown to the approval of cheering crowds and the accompaniment of "Hold That Tiger." This, we're told, is what college football was like in 1925. For a look at the pros, we cut to a shot of a muddy field and a perplexed cow watching men struggle for possession of the ball for little glory and even less money. Led by aging captain George Clooney, the Duluth Bulldogs are in it for the love of the game. Well, that and it beats working in the mines, and provides a steadier paycheck than weekend wrestling gigs.
If amiability equaled greatness, Leatherheads would be destined to become a classic. A long-in-the-works comedy about the early days of professional football, it attempts to capture the moment when rowdy, approachable amateurism gave way to big money and the cold precision of skilled pros. Instead, it mostly captures the comic whims of everyone involved before remembering it has a plot and a raucous finale to squeeze in before the credits roll.
Working from a script first floated by Duncan Brantley and Sports Illustrated reporter Rick Reilly in 1991, Clooney shows a real knack for period detail and the rhythms of old screwball comedies. The subtlest jokes come from the clash between the past and the present—shots of a smoking waterboy and well-covered cheerleaders—but the sexual tension between Clooney and Renée Zellweger, as a tart, strong-willed Chicago Tribune reporter investigating discrepancies in Krasinski's heroic past, provide the best moments. He's all baseless self-confidence; she's an able, sarcastic foil. Together, they get all the motions right.
But too much of Leatherheads feels like studied motions, and its charms never plaster over a story that takes forever to get going, and doesn't go too far once it does. The scenes paying homage to Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, and the Keystone Kops look like they were fun to shoot and are generally fun to watch, but after a while, they start to feel like a cover act for someone else's greatest hits. Still, Leatherheads is never less than pleasant, and a moment in the middle suggests that the director might do even better in the future. Catching up at a speakeasy, Clooney invites Zellweger to dance. Then, as the music plays, he simply holds her gaze until it becomes obvious that dancing and other entanglements will follow. It's such a sweet, effortlessly seductive moment that it's positively Clooney-esque.