Leatherheads – A George Clooney Retrospective

George Clooney and John Krasinski in Leatherheads. © 2008 Universal Pictures.

George Clooney follows up two very strong films by taking it to the gridiron with a screwball romance in Leatherheads.

A romantic comedy in football’s early days is probably not the first thing I’d think of when it comes to following up Good Night, and Good Luck. I’m not sure anyone expected Clooney to go in this direction. It’s certainly an interesting choice and he does a solid job with storytelling. The film probably offers the most comedy in terms of Clooney’s directorial filmography. At the same time, we can see how his directing sports in this film could lead him to direct The Boys in the Boat about 15 years later. However, something interesting to ponder is how his first three films as a director are all period pieces. Come to think of it, everything but The Ides of March and The Midnight Sky is a period piece!

Jimmy “Dodge” Connelly (George Clooney) was the veteran captain of the Duluth Bulldogs in 1925. The all-time rushing leader at the time with 8,703 career yards, you’d better believe he would do anything to save the team. Both the team and the league were on the brink of collapse. When Dodge hears about the great war hero, Carter “the Bullet” Rutherford (John Krasinski), he does want he can to recruit him for the team. In short, Carter is exactly what they need. After all, who could say no to a heroic veteran of the Great War, let alone a talent on the field?!?

Dodge is not the only one competing for Carter’s attention. The Chicago Tribune had sent out one of their reporters, Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), to dig up dirt. It’s not like he’s running for president! Carter probably took a bit more credit than he should have for his actions. But if this is not enough, both Dodge and Carter are pursuing Lexie. It’s not going to end well especially once Lexie goes public with her article. Of course, Congress appoints a new NFL commissioner, Pete Harpin (Peter Gerety), and he takes a personal interest in resolving the matter. Not just that but he also vows to clean up the game. Dodge won’t be getting anyway with anything any time soon. Or will he?!? Matters do get resolved but only after Dodge attempts to saves Carter’s butt.

Dodge has one final football game in him but this time, Carter is playing for the Bears. It’s also very muddy on the field, leading Dodge up to his own tricks. Not to mention Clooney pulling a fast one on the cast prior to wrapping. Anyway, it looks as if the Bears won on an interception but after washing away the mud, it’s Dodge holding the game ball and Duluth winning with a touchdown. Both Dodge and Carter part with their friendship seemingly intact. After Dodge and Lexie ride into the sunset, the end credits reveal they got married.

George Clooney (center) in Leatherheads.
George Clooney (center) in Leatherheads. © 2008 Universal Pictures.

Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly’s script takes draws inspiration from Harold “Red” Grange, among others. Note that while Clooney did a rewrite, the WGA felt that he didn’t deserve a writing credit. The decision led Clooney to take fi-core status with the guild, having rewritten the film into a screwball comedy. But anyway, Red Grange singlehandedly saved the NFL after the Chicago Bears signed him in 1925 following his last game at the University of Illinois. As for the Duluth Bulldogs in the film, Clooney wanted Eskimos like the real team but the NFL turned them down. Here’s a fun fact: the Duluth team ended up moving to Washington, DC. What they end up doing is pay homage to the first professional NFL team, the Canton Bulldogs.

The football scenes in the film are closer in style to flag football than today’s version of professional football. Clooney’s preference was not to use his actors rather than stunt doubles. Pro football was very different in the 1920s with a number of players coming from the mines, etc. Just like in the film, they might punch a player on the other team, perhaps even get away with it. One thing to admire in Newton Thomas Siegel’s cinematography is how the film does not have a professional football look to it. Instead, it feels just a bit grainy and that’s perfectly okay with me.

The film understandably did not make its budget back at the box office.  Never mind the three leads but it was just a bad time to be a sports comedy during this part of the decade. A number of sports comedies opened in theaters during 2006-2008. Many of them were not good including Semi-Pro, The Benchwarmers, and The Game Plan. Blades of Glory and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby were the few films that were received well both both critics and audiences alike. To release a sports comedy during this time was really asking for trouble.

Leatherheads mixes it up between football and a Howard Hawks-esque screwball comedy romance–Clooney and Zellweger are charming together–but the best scenes are on the gridiron. It could stand to lose a few minutes here and there but it’s a nice throwback to film’s heyday.

DIRECTOR: George Clooney
SCREENWRITERS: Duncan Brantley & Rick Reilly
CAST: George Clooney, Renée Zellweger, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce, Peter Gerety, Jack Thompson, Stephen Root, Wayne Duvall, Keith Loneker, Robert Baker, Matt Bushell, Malcolm Goodwin, Tim Griffin, Tommy Hinkley, Nick Paonessa, Max Casella, Mike O’Malley, Heather Goldenhersh

Universal Pictures released Leatherheads in theaters on April 4, 2008. Grade: 3.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.