The opening shots of George Clooney’s third and weakest directorial effort are drenched in sepia. It’s a college football game and the suit and tie crowd looks overdressed while the players seem fragilely bare in their simple cotton jerseys, pants and belts. This is sports in 1925, but as we’re told—repeatedly—things are about to change. Dodge Connelly (Clooney) is about to sign coed star Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) to the pros. Only as Rutherford’s manager (Jonathan Pryce) reminds them both, the pros are a step down from the Yale squad. Instead of playing for thousands of screaming fans, Connelly’s Duluth Bulldogs huff and grunt in muddy fields in front of bored cows and restless audiences. Hell, just the fact that 45-year-old Dodge is both coach and star of the team says plenty. But in signing Rutherford, a jug-eared and amiable WWI war hero rumored to have made a troop of Krauts surrender just by telling them to, Dodge unleashes Football 2.0, a.k.a. Doritos Bowl athletics with raucous announcers, faux-humble post game maxims, shaving cream endorsements, and a “new and dangerous element” called rules.
Clooney was made for the 1920s; he knows its suits suit him. But just as robot scientists describe the “uncanny valley” effect where the closer a droid comes to looking human, the less we ascribe it human emotions (consider the way you love Super Mario more than Lara Croft), the more Clooney tries to be Clark Gable, the wider the gulf appears between them. Clooney’s got Gable’s grin and magnetism, but he doesn’t have them here. Instead, he mugs noncommittally. Far worse still is Renée Zellweger as Lexie Littleton, a Chicago Tribune reporter with brass balls and a brassier heart. Confusing moxie with petulance, Zellweger sounds as modern as if she were griping at an Orange Julius clerk. Her lipstick is corpse-paint thick, her chemistry with Clooney equally DOA. Still, there’s gotta be a dame, and she’s damned near the only one in the whole flick. Lexie’s required to unmask Rutherford’s infamous war story as phony. That’s going to go over as well as it did when the media looked askance at Pat Tillman. (“We need heroes” is a continual refrain.)
At odds, Lexie and Dodge snipe at each other in their best imitation of Gable and Lombard, but the lemon sting of writers Duncan Bradley and Rick Reilly’s quips never feel fresh. In one sequence, the pair escape a posse of Keystone Cops who’ve just busted up their speakeasy, but no matter how many stairs they dash up and down, the gag’s still running in place. Romance clunks through the door when Clooney woos Zellweger with “You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that I’m nuts about you.” He’s right, the script’s too formulaic for surprise, but that doesn’t make their kisses any less phony. Leatherheads makes a decent diversion, but feels like an irrelevant homage 80 years after its setting, when people would rather watch the Super Bowl commercials than the Super Bowl itself.