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By George, ‘Leatherheads' has its moments

4/10/2008 - West Side Leader
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By Craig Marks

John Krasinski, left, and George Clooney star in “Leatherheads.”
Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon; courtesy of Universal Studios
By my count, Akron is mentioned three times in “Leatherheads,” an enjoyable if clunky comedy about the early days of professional football. Another interesting aspect of the movie: It’s one of the rare sports comedies not starring Will Ferrell.

Your standard Will Ferrell character looks in the mirror and sees — despite all evidence to the contrary — a suave, handsome devil, one whose looks and guile let him get away with murder. In other words, he sees George Clooney, the star and director of “Leatherheads.”

Clooney plays Dodge Connolly, a crafty pro football player on the Duluth Bulldogs. It’s 1925, and professional football is treated like a joke. It’s the college game that has the fans and respect, and it also has a phenom named Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski). Carter is a war hero who’s now tearing it up on the gridiron, while grabbing every endorsement deal in sight.

Dodge sees Carter as a player who could be a big attraction in the struggling pro league. (The Akron team has just folded, we’re told.) Also interested in Carter is ace reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), whose paper is dubious of the collegian’s war tales. It’s no surprise a romantic triangle develops.

Clooney is too old to play a football player, and Krasinski is too old to play a college student (even one back from the war, unless it was an incredibly long tour of duty). But this is a movie that values authenticity about as much as “Major League” did. (The Cleveland Indians contenders? C’mon.) It’s played for laughs, and there are just enough of them to make “Leatherheads” worthwhile. (The jazz-age soundtrack, composed by Randy Newman, provides a boost.)

Zellweger, her lips perennially puckered as if she were a lemonade taste tester, is not given the witty dialogue needed to make her fast-talking character come alive. She never develops much chemistry with her two costars, though she has more than she did with her previous movie’s male lead, an animated talking bee.

Apart from a clever flashback, the war-story subplot isn’t too compelling. It’s when “Leatherheads” sticks to football that it works best. We see how professional football survived its anything-goes infancy, taking steps to become the game that today causes so many of us to waste our autumn Sundays in front of the tube. From the first game we see (featuring a cow that gives a hilarious look into the camera) to the inevitable big game, the prehistoric pigskin matches are fun. It’s just a shame the Akron squad couldn’t stick around long enough to take on the winner.

The movie, currently in theaters, is rated PG-13 for brief strong language.

*** (out of four)

Craig Marks is a cartoonist and editorial, sports and entertainment writer for the West Side Leader.

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