As Leatherheads arrives in theaters, you're going to be hearing the phrase "screwball comedy" a lot, either in the barrage of pre-opening publicity or in review after review. "Screwball comedy" implies a certain snap and rotation -- a velocity to the gags and a vector to the plot -- but the people who made Leatherheads don't quite have the strength of arm or skew of angle to make Leatherheads truly screwball; it kind of fizzles out on the way to the plate. And that's not to say Leatherheads is charmless or unenjoyable or ill-made; it just isn't quite as good as the pedigrees and passions of the people involved would have you think it will (or, frankly, should) be.
Leatherheads opens in the 1920s, contrasting the crowds and fortunes of college football and the struggling early professional form of the game. Princeton star Carter "Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski) leads his team to touchdown after touchdown to the delight of screaming multitudes; Jimmy "Dodge" Connelly (George Clooney) leads a rag-tag crew of motley men from end zone to end zone in front of sparse, motley crowds of slack-jawed yokels. Jimmy's the player-coach-co-owner of a struggling pro football team who, in order to survive, hits on the brilliant idea of recruiting The Bullet -- at great expense, both in money and dignity -- to play. Rutherford isn't just a gridiron hero; he's also a war hero. Reporter Lexie Littleton (Reneé Zellweger) is ostensibly following The Bullet for a profile, but really it's because quiet murmurs have intimated that The Bullet isn't quite the hero he's been made out to be.
The Bullet wants to play football; Dodge wants football to succeed; Lexie wants a story. Three good-looking people who want three very different things -- you could build (and many have built) classic comedies out of that little. Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly's script, though, sets the film's trio in motion and then fails to keep the velocity swift enough, so inertia sets in fairly quickly. It's worth noting that none of the central characters is as truly or heroically flawed as the leads of the great screwball comedies. In The Philadelphia Story, Hepburn is judgmental, Stewart is pompous and Grant is manipulative; in Leatherheads, Clooney is earnest, Zellweger is plucky and Krasinski is in way over his head. Heroes in films like this are often best measured by what it is they oppose; in truly great screwball comedies, what people oppose is generally the worst part of themselves. Clooney, Zellweger and Krasinski's characters all start out fairly likeable; problem is ... they just stay that way. Dodge and his team know they have to get a little dirty to win; Clooney and his actors don't quite seem to have learned that lesson.
Clooney has, at the very least, fashioned an attractive film -- a big, brown period piece, with cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel (Three Kings, X2), editing by Stephen Mirrione (Oceans Eleven, Traffic), music from Randy Newman (Toy Story, Pleasantville), costume design by Louise Frogley (Man on Fire, Constantine) and production design by James D. Bissell (300, The Rocketeer). The level of craft is impressive, whether manifested in the gentle fall of afternoon light or the crisp snap of a starched collar. But design isn't drama, and cinematography isn't comedy; an extended sequence with Clooney and Zellweger running from a speakeasy turns into a series of pratfalls and gags, including Keystone Cops-style quick changes, but it never really engages. And the dialog has a lightly watered-down zing to it as well; after Dodge utters some boorish blurt of comment, Lexie notes "How quiet it must be at the Algonquin with you here in Duluth." Leatherheads doesn't show us the past, but, rather, the past as we know it from movies -- from snappy outfits and snappier patter to the time-honored constructions of love triangles and big games with everything on the line.
Even the truth behind Krasinski's heroic deeds is modeled on the sort of cynically winking comedy that you might find in a Preston Sturges film; it doesn't quite have the tart bite of Hail the Conquering Hero or Sullivan's Travels, but it does manage to evoke the haphazard humanity of a Sturges comeuppance. But Krasinski -- with his tousled- nice-guy looks and Midwestern smile -- doesn't fall from a great height so much as stumble slightly over a curb; if Leatherheads were a true '30s comedy (instead of a 2008 approximation of a '30s comedy) Krasinski's Rutherford would have a pencil-thin mustache and a mile-wide streak of arrogance waiting to be punctured; the mechanics and marketing of modern moviemaking, though, necessitate that Krasinski's Rutherford be 'likeable.' Rutherford's a Prince of a guy, but it's less fun when the Prince has no clothes as opposed to the Emperor.
Like I said, Leatherheads isn't bad or boring -- it has a certain boozy, broad-shouldered bonhomie to it (a fistfight between Dodge and The Bullet has a funny, loose quality as the two note where they cannot be struck by the other as a preliminary). But it isn't brilliant or timeless, either; it has style but lacks surprises, delivers breezy charms but never quite gets the ball to the end zone. It feels like what it is -- a way for Clooney to make a little money (as director and star) between films he's more passionate about or more invested in. Football's a game meant to be played on a big field, but Leatherheads feels like a movie designed to be seen on a small screen. Combining an "early days of football" storyline with a love triangle didn't mean Leatherheads was going to be crowded or cluttered or schizophrenic; watching the film's twining plots lazily unroll, you don't wish the people behind Leatherheads had picked one or the other -- you just wish they'd picked up the pace.