Set when professional football consisted of little more than "miners and farmers and shell-shocked veterans" beating each other up in turnip fields, George Clooney's Leatherheads continues the star/director's steady march back through time. Following Clooney's first two directing gigs—also period films (2002's promising Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and 2005's excellent Good Night, and Good Luck)—Leatherheads is set even further back, in 1925, when raucous speakeasies were crammed into back rooms, fast-talkin' dames were crack newspaper reporters, and lovable scoundrels rode the rails.
Or that's the mythologized version of '20s America, anyway, which is all that matters here. A throwback in every sense of the word, Leatherheads aims to capture the sharp, earnest spirit of Howard Hawks classics like His Girl Friday (1940) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). Instead of Hepburn and Grant, though, we get Clooney and Renée Zellweger, as well as Jim Halpert from The Office and the goofy, bumbling music of Randy Newman. It's a hodgepodge, but it works.
Since his transformation from ER heartthrob to bat-nippled action hero to Serious Filmmaker, Clooney's worked with far better material, but Leatherheads will suffice: Dodge Connelly (Clooney) is a crafty, charming "middle-aged boy wonder" who plays in the struggling pro football league, where spectators are as rare as rules. But just as Dodge bullshits his way into convincing superstar college football player and war hero Carter Rutherford (a mildly likeable John Krasinski) to join the league, sexy reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) decides to prove Rutherford's not the all-American hero he claims to be. Drunken fistfights and love triangle shenanigans ensue.
See that up there? How "sexy" and "Renée Zellweger" are in the same sentence? What the fuck, right? But it's true! While Clooney, as is often the case, is funny and charming, the pinch-faced, fish-lipped Zellweger somehow manages—at least in her antagonistic, clever scenes with Clooney—to give Leatherheads, which often feels rote and familiar, a much-needed punch. Like the classics from which it draws inspiration, Leatherheads is a straightforward, inoffensive, unsurprising crowd-pleaser. And as that, it's just fine—but considering Clooney's record of late, it's still disappointing that Leatherheads doesn't try to be anything more.