Ah, how we miss the days of screwball comedies, when romance lived or died depending on the bite of your banter. Most attempts to resurrect the genre fall flat, yet hope springs eternal: If anybody was capable of plausibly pulling this Lazarus act off, it’d be George Clooney, right? The guy with the old-school movie-star looks and the respect for vintage Hollywood product? The fact that Clooney comes mighty close with his anarchic football farce only makes this well-intended throwback all the more frustrating. The movie gets lots of things right, yet fumbles key facets so badly that you simply can’t christen it the gridiron version of His Girl Friday.
To his credit, the director-star evokes the anything-goes early era of pro football with panache, capturing the moment when the game went from a shyster’s paradise to a sanctioned industry. Clooney also knows how to channel the Gable-Cooper-McCrea charm like a champ, while The Office’s John Krasinski could have a long career of Ralph Bellamy goody-two-shoes roles, should he wish. It’s the dizzy dame in Leatherheads’ love triangle who seriously gums up the works. Playing a Hildy Johnson–style reporter, Renée Zellweger just can’t get up to screwball speed: She’s no Miriam Hopkins, much less Barbara Stanwyck or Carole Lombard. It’s a tall order, but when Zellweger tries to attain motormouth velocity, the pace falls three beats behind and everyone else scrambles to regain lost ground. In any other comedy, she’d merely be a weak link. For this fast-talking team effort, Zellweger is almost the kiss of death.
Cast and crew