Jim Thorpe, Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski, Johnny "Blood" McNally - just a few of the well known stars that helped transform
professional football into one of the most popular leagues in the country. At the turn of the century, stars like these
helped inspire the character, Dodge Connelly, in George Clooney's latest feature, "Leatherheads." In the film, Clooney
plays an old, resourceful veteran who recruits a young football sensation and American war hero to save professional
football and his career. Along the way, he also encounters a snappy and seductive reporter named Lexie Littleton and a
new, rules oriented commissioner, all of whom have a profound impact on the final outcome. Representing Clooney's 3rd
directed film, "Leatherheads" is more akin to a pleasant Sunday stroll than a game of the week. Quick witted and
unpretentious, it's a romantic comedy that sticks to the game plan.
Wily, old veteran Dodge Connolly knows how to win on and off the field. As captain of the Duluth Bulldogs, one of the few
professional football teams in the country, Connolly does whatever it takes to win. Especially in a league where there
are no rules. But those improvisational, glory days are coming to a close. As the Bulldog's sponsor drops out and the
league teeters on the verge of collapse, Connolly quickly learns that he must either get a real job or find a way to save
the league from total ruin.
With very few qualifications off the field, Connolly opts to save his one and only job, convincing college football star,
Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford, to turn pro. Rutherford, an All-American, gained notoriety as a war hero, forcing a
handful of Germans to surrender during World War I. With his golden boy charm, athletic skills, and good looks, he
secures numerous endorsement deals while bringing with him, a large fan base. And thus, adding prosperity to the league.
But Carter's story is almost too good to be true. And it attracts the attention of spitfire news reporter Lexie
Littleton. Hot on the trail of a newsworthy story, Lexie creates quite a stir. Not only is she the only female sports
reporter in town, but she also sparks a rivalry for her affections between Dodge and Carter. As the league crowns a new
commissioner intent on implementing standards of conduct and rules in the game, Dodge and Carter are forced to adjust
their playbook with the new environment and each other.
"Leatherheads" marks the 3rd film directed by George Clooney, following such stylish gems as "Good Night, and Good Luck"
and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." But unlike its dramatic predecessors, "Leatherheads" is a comedy - a throwback to
the Howard Hawk, Preston Sturges, and Billy Wilder comedies of the 40's like "His Girl Friday," "Philadelphia Story," and
"Front Page." Here, Clooney's meticulous attention to detail pays off as rapid-fire dialogue is added to spice up chemistry
and conflict. And standstill elements like a cow grazing and observing a gaggle of footballers at the film's opening adds
a particular comedic touch. All of which segue nicely into unexpected moments of beauty, as a barroom brawl transforms
into a very poignant rendition of "Over There."
Back in 1925, professional football was truly in its infancy. A sport with origins tied to rugby, players wore leather
helmets, showered in their own uniforms, played anyone and anywhere for a dollar, and engaged in scrums and other illicit
activity in a league with no rules. And the film is quick to point out these details. Such techniques as the grapple
yank were among the most popular. However, almost surprisingly, nobody cared about the sport back then
because it wasn't viewed as a real occupation. Men were expected to get a real job!
In "Leatherheads," the main character, Jimmy "Dodge" Connolly, is loosely based on the life of Johnny "Blood" McNally, a
real life bruiser who played in the NFL for 14 seasons from 1925 to 1938, earned a spot on the Green Bay Packers, helped
them win four World Championships, and secured a spot in the Professional Football Hall of Fame.
And as far as screwball comedies are concerned, "Leatherheads" honors the origination of professional football by adhering
to the dress, the speech, and the mannerisms of the time; however, it's important to note that Clooney still exercises
certain liberties in the story. Most significantly, how the NFL did not actually appoint it's first commissioner, Elmer
Layden, until 1941, he did not have the power to organize the press, and was not appointed by Congress to clean up the
game. Additionally, a large part of Carter Rutherford's character is his larger than life presence as depicted through a
series of product endorsements; however, athletic endorsements and agents did not become a part of the sport until much
Nevertheless, the biggest problem with "Leatherheads" isn't historical inaccuracy. It's that it's far too predictable
and blase. Fundamentally, this is because the story tends to focus on the three main characters and the three main
characters only. Without any exploration of the supporting cast, characters such as Bakes, Curly, and Stump are sadly
lacking gridiron details, team camaraderie, and supplemental arcs. Even the talented Stephen Root seems rather
misused. Throw in some obtuse and uneven editing and scenes such as Big Gus standing gleefully at the railroad station
come across as random pastorals instead of scenes of substantial value.
For all its shortcomings, "Leatherheads" is neither good nor bad. It prefers to linger on its formulaic love
triangle more so than actual football, which plays out more as a gimmick than an integral part of the story. And it
doesn't make good enough use out of all the leatherheads. But if there's one thing Clooney knows, it's how to get the
most from his charming cast. They are all game, delivering snappy dialogue and deadpan humor with a smile. All in all,
making the film a congenial, good-natured afternoon romp.