Leatherheads, a Muddy Snoozefest

George Clooney's old-timey footall flick Leatherheads is sis-boom-bad, less like the Super Bowl of period comedies than a committee meeting.

The film really is a throwback: it makes you think of February of 2008, when Semi-Pro came out. Leatherheads is the same movie, about a rascally player-owner in a dying league trying to bring in a ringer to save his team, the only source of laughs being not character or plot but the funny ways people looked and talked back in the day.

The movie starts in 1925, when college football drew 40,000 delirious spectators and pro football took place in pastures. Clooney is a pro player from Duluth whose entire league is going under due to general lack of interest. Seeking another career doesn't go so well, though. At a job interview, he is asked what his skills are. He has no answer.

Directing from a script by Rick Reilly, the sportswriter, Clooney is content to poke around for some mild laughs in nutty football scenes; a fat guy who looks like a bone-crushing lineman with the potential to turn the game around is instead revealed to be only a kicker who sends the ball into the band section.

The ringer that could save the team, and even the league, is The Bullet (John Krasinski), an Ivy League superstar who can be lured to the pros for a massive contract. Meanwhile, a nosy reporter from Chicago (a smirking and irritating Renee Zellweger) is trying to break the story that the Bullet's WW I hero story doesn't really stand up to fact-checking.

Zellweger does a weak take on the smart-mouthed girl reporter played by the likes of Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn back in the day and more recently by Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy, and she's far too old to play the love interest for Krasinski. Her squinty facial expressions have become unbearable to the point where you want someone to come in and prop her eyelids open with toothpicks. The scenes in which she and Clooney flirt each other up with supposedly jaunty verbal riffing (mostly this sounds like labored screenwriting) are like trying to light wet charcoal with a wet match.

Clooney is trying to do Clark Gable, whose comic skills are perhaps not as well-remembered as they should be. Gable did not mug; he was brisk and smart with the banter. Clooney, though, is constantly pushing his luck, trying to sell us a joke with bug-eyed facial expressions. Clooney the director is no help to Clooney the actor; any other helmer would have told his star to stop trying so hard. Clooney seems to think that 1930s comedies -- misleadingly labeled "screwball comedies," though they depended almost entirely on verbal wit -- were about buffoonery.

In the second half, the WWI subplot takes over the movie, though it doesn't much matter and it doesn't reflect badly on the Krasinski character (who if anything comes off seeming more likable when the truth is known). Scene after scene features lots of chatter about the exact details of the Bullet's war service, which have long since been revealed to the audience and aren't particularly fascinating. Zellweger seems so out of place in her scenes with Krasinski that the supposed conflict between their mutual attraction and her profession never becomes much of an issue.

This climactic gridiron battle, moreover, doesn't matter either. The big idea here is that it's fun to watch football in the rain. Look, there is mud on everyone's faces! The football action is so boring -- it's a low-scoring game -- that we keep cutting away to the press box for a flat running gag about swearing in front of an open microphone. The announcers are as flabbergasted as we are that the movie is ending so meekly. As one of them points out, "We have a muddy snoozefest."

Leatherheads

Directed by George Clooney

Starring: George Clooney, Renée Zellweger, John Krasinski

2 stars/ 4

114 minutes/Rated PG-13

Kyle Smith is a film critic for the the New York Post. His website is at www.kylesmithonline.com