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George Clooney's Leatherheads is a smart, funny, stylish comedy with an ingenious premise and perfect execution. Who says they don't make 'em like they used to?


A comic winner set against the beginning of pro football in 1925, Leatherheads is first-class movie entertainment in the tradition of 1973's The Sting. The script has been floating around for about 17 years , developed by two Sports Illustrated writers (Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly). Right from the opening use of the old Universal logo, director and star George Clooney plops us smack into the middle of the roaring '20s as Dodge Connolly, quarterback and born leader who is trying to transition fans from far more popular college games into the free-for-all world of pro ball. In "Magnificent 7" style he pulls together a ragtag team of talented, yet eccentric, recruits, but when things go wrong he is forced to enlist a star college athlete and World War I hero named Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) in order to boost attendance. Enter pretty Tribune newspaper reporter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger), who suspects Rutherford's story may be a tad too perfect to be true, so she digs up the dirt on him while both he and Dodge battle for her affections off the field.


It may have taken Clooney's sensibility as a director to recognize he was the perfect choice to play Dodge Connolly, a role originally meant for Mel Gibson. Clooney exudes movie star cool and carries Leatherheads on a carefree, hilarious run from start to end zone. It's no easy task since the script is basically an homage to the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s. You know, the ones where Cary Grant would square off against Rosalind Russell with lots of snappy rat-a-tat tat one-liners. This kind of mannered dialogue may be alien to today's core young movie-going audience but Clooney and his co-star Zellweger manage to pull it off convincingly. Many contemporary actors would fall flat on their botoxed faces trying this stuff but not this pair. In fact, Zellweger seems born to play this kind of career-oriented dame. Making up the other third of the triangle, Krasinski (The Office )--as the boy who may not be as golden as he seems--holds his own and has a couple of choice moments, particularly in a nicely choreographed fist fight with Clooney. There's also fine support from several veteran actors, including Jack Thompson as Littleton's editor, Peter Gerety as the Chicago football commissioner and especially Jonathan Pryce as Carter's bottom line obsessed, oily manager. The guys who make up the Bulldog team are all believable ball players even though none had suited up before--except standout Keith Loneker, a gentle giant as 'Big Gus.'


After Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and his Oscar-nominated work on Good Night And Good Luck, it should be no state secret that Clooney knows his way around both sides of the camera. This is the first time, however, he's directed AND played the leading role. He's at total ease pulling off the tricky screwball comedy aspects with just enough restraint to make them play for modern audiences while making the mud bath football stuff exciting, funny and credible. Considering the number of fine comic performances he got from his cast, it's clear his experience as an actor has paid off in that department. What's really impressive is Leatherheads' look and feel, with top notch cinematography, production and costume design and editing. Randy Newman's ragtime music recalls The Sting, but it's entirely appropriate and the musician even turns up in an onscreen cameo as a piano player. The film has been carefully crafted and the effort shows. Period pieces like this are hard to pull off successfully, but Clooney and company succeed admirably.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 stars.