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‘Leatherheads’

'Football,' but not quite premier league

by Kaori Shoji

George Clooney’s well-groomed, pedigreed charm hits the screen full-force in “Leatherheads” — the impact of which leaves you slightly reeling. How can one, sole guy be so enchanting?

Clooney’s third directorial feature stars himself as a gentlemanly rogue with a passion for American football. Compared to his recent projects (“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Good Night and Good Luck”), “Leatherheads” is lighter on the palate, with extra bubbles to compensate for the slashed calories. Delightful but somewhat unmemorable, the pleasure of the film is fresh and fleeting. The best parties are like that — calculated in the way it measures out the fun, makes sure nothing gets out of line, the conversations witty and nicely flirtatious.

Set in the good ole days of 1925 in picturesque Minnesota, “Leatherheads” is a tale of the fledgling heydey of professional football crossed with a they-don’t-make-’em-like-they-used-to, love story. It has that aristocratic, Preston Sturges ambience, which is probably harder to re-enact than most of us imagine. I mean, how many people in the modern world can wear a tweed jacket and not look weirdly professorial. As for Gorgeous George, as U.S. tabloids refer to him, his tweed jackets rest on his shoulders and embrace his torso in a way that would make Savile Row tailors swoon, not to mention any female in the audience over 12. He’s in his element here; in the “Ocean” series he taught America how to wear a tuxedo (James Bond has that task in Britain), while in “Leatherheads” he demonstrates the art of being a rugged American gent, exuding a sensuous whiff consisting of homegrown pipe tobacco, lavender and gin rickeys.

Clooney plays a guy called Dodge, captain of the Duluth Bulldogs — a prairie town pro-football team on its last legs and literally down to its last ball (which is stolen by the opposing team during a match and never returned). Determined to save the Bulldogs and keep the flame of football burning, Dodge decides to recruit Carter “Bullet” Rutherford (John Krasinski) a college-football star and World War I hero — and motorcycles to Chicago for the mission. In the meantime, Chicago gal reporter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger) is sent from her paper to “expose” Carter’s war record, which may not be as brilliant as America is led to think.

Spotting Lexie in the windy city, Dodge (temporarily forgetting Carter) makes his move, and gets a veritable slap on the cheek. Lexie has plenty of spirit and verbal ammo,causing him to mutter: “You’re like the kind of cocktail that comes on like sugar but gives you a kick in the head!” Carter for his part, falls for Lexie as soon as she starts to interview him, and an elegant menage a trois unfolds against a backdrop of mud-and-guts football aesthetics.

Ah, 1925. Those were apparently the days when men and women actually talked before launching into a relationship. There’s none of that desultory, economizing straightforwardness that characterize movie conversations of today — Dodge and Lexie exchange gunfire witticisms that display their taste, knowledge and intellect but reveal precious little about their personal selves. They don’t even get close until the last 15 minutes, and that’s just for a well-behaved, prewar Hollywood kiss. The mood enhancing wardrobe helps — Dodge in his incredible suits and Lexie in an array of well-cut, waistline-emphasizing ensembles, topped with perky cloche hats and accessorized with leather gloves. There’s something to be said for being formally and modestly dressed — certainly, Lexie wields the sort of effortless command that eluded the much more sexually aggressive “Sex and the City” women.

In the end, “Leatherheads” isn’t a masterly work, it’s just Clooney, flexing his muscles and having some fun, throwing a little party and inviting us all to come.