In the 1920s, professional football was regarded as something of an oddity, certainly no comparison to the glory of the college ranks; women sports writers were a novelty in the press box; and the guys on the gridiron wore simple leather caps for protection.
That’s the America we’re introduced to in “Leatherheads,” a 2008 film co-authored by Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated. George Clooney directs and stars as Dodge Connelly, an aging back (and coach) for the Duluth Bulldogs pro team.
The professional league is barely getting by as the film opens, and more than one game on Duluth’s road trip is cancelled because the home team folds by the time the Bulldogs get to town. This, of course, is like science fiction to us in today’s U.S., where players and coaches command multi-million dollar salaries, stadiums are named after faceless corporate sponsors, and the league itself is one of the country’s most thriving industries. In truth, that dichotomy is one of the more fascinating aspects of “Leatherheads.”
It doesn’t just work as a period piece, however. The dialogue is snappy and the actors are likable even when their characters are not so likable. Clooney channels some old-school charm and more than a bit of the comic self he showed in the very good “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” Renee Zellweger brings her pretty pout to good use as Lexie Littleton, a big-city reporter with aspirations of an editor’s desk. And John Krasinski, best known from his lead role in the television hit “The Office,” provides boyish vitality as Carter Rutherford, a college football star and war hero who accepts Dodge’s offer to play for Duluth.
Zellweger’s Lexie, hoping for that one big story to make her name, is assigned to follow Rutherford as he makes the transition to the pros. Her angle is to prove that Rutherford isn’t the war hero he’s been made out to be, and to get the scoop she cozies up to him.
Lexie begins to genuinely care for Rutherford, even as the romantic vibe between her and Dodge progresses. We’ve seen this kind of love-hate romance on film before, and anytime we see it, the appeal to us depends largely on the freshness of the script and the chemistry between the actors. There has been some backlash among moviegoers against Clooney’s smug persona on camera and his self-righteousness off it, and Zellweger has her share of critics too. But together they sparkle on screen, and their exchanges of generally well-crafted dialogue are the highlight of the film.
Taking a shot at Dodge’s companion for the evening at a speakeasy, Lexie observes, “Enchanting girl. I thought you had to be 21 to get in here.” “She IS 21,” Dodge replies, to which Lexie retorts: “I meant her I.Q.” Moments later, Dodge shrugs and says, “You’re only as young as the women you feel.”
Overall, “Leatherheads” is a fun stroll through a bygone era brought capably to life by Clooney and company.
“Dave’s Drive-In” is an ongoing look at sports on film. Dave Kavanaugh is the Optic’s sports editor. To contact him, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.