Andy Bockelman: 'Leatherheads' fumbles in attempt

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Long before Tom Brady or the Manning brothers strapped on their plastic protective wear before stepping onto the gridiron, there was a group of men who hit the field with little more than a flimsy bit of cowhide shielding their craniums.

Their name?

"Leatherheads."

The only profitable football in 1925 America is within the college system. Professional football consists of disorganized teams who play the game on cow pastures and bring in crowds who are too bored to even cheer.

The Bulldogs of Duluth, Minn., are no exception, but seasoned team captain Jimmy "Dodge" Connelly (George Clooney) plays his heart out every game regardless. When the team loses its funding, he makes every effort to save the sport he loves by convincing Princeton hot shot Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski) to join the Bulldogs.

The Bullet is a national celebrity not only because of his football prowess, but also because of his exploits while serving in World War I. While recruiting his new golden boy, Dodge also meets Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger), a reporter who shows a suspicious interest in Rutherford's past. As the season continues, the tension heats up among the three, on and off the field.

Clooney gives it his all as Dodge, who plays hard, lives hard and has an innate talent for initiating fistfights. His dual role as romantic lead and athlete is mirrored in the fact that he also directed and produced the film. Zellweger returns to "Chicago" domain as Lexie, a Hepburn-esque journalist who quickly becomes the object of competition for the two teammates.

Krasinski is unluckily all over the place in his depiction of Rutherford, going from cocky showman to humble Boy Scout and back within minutes. Seeing his face plastered all over the background hucking everything from toothpaste to cigarettes does not help.

Jonathan Pryce is well off as Rutherford's manager C.C. Frazier, while Stephen Root makes a wonderful spectacle of himself as the Bulldogs' booze-soaked columnist Sudsy, who has to rely on Dodge to recount each game accurately.

The quality of Clooney's comedy is as handsome as the actor himself, although many of the intended laughs are flubbed. The dialogue is urbane to a fault, particularly between Dodge and Lexie, and somewhat disaffecting to viewers who are more interested in the sports portions than the romance.

The interpretation of the Roaring Twenties is fine in components such as the costume design, a jaunty musical score by Randy Newman and especially in the numerous sepia-toned stills that capture the Bulldogs' highlights.

Clooney has a real knack for rendering the past, exemplified in his other directorial features "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" and "Good Night, and Good Luck." Unfortunately, his latest has a real lack of the Moxie it needs to get going. The energy wanes constantly, and the love triangle involved is almost downright asinine in the age difference among all three leads. To make matters worse, this is a problem that is mentioned, but never resolved.

Although it has many eye-catching touches, "Leatherheads" fumbles before reaching the goal line, wasting what has clearly been a considerable amount of effort.

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