George Clooney’s ode to screwball comedies of yore, Leatherheads, is sooooo close, but yet . . .

George Clooney sports movies Directed by George Clooney. Written by Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly. Starring George Clooney, Renée Zellweger, and John Krasinski. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
From ladies' man to man's man: George Clooney and crew in Leatherheads.
From ladies' man to man's man: George Clooney and crew in Leatherheads.

When Time recently called George Clooney "The Last Movie Star," you didn't have to read the article to know where it was coming from. Stars of the postpubescent variety are an increasingly rare commodity these days, whereas Clooney seems a supernova of effortless, old-Hollywood élan.

Clooney is a holdover from another time — which may have existed only in the movies — when men were witty gentlemen who knew how to dress, how to charm, and how to throw a punch if the occasion called for it. All of which makes Clooney's third film as a director, Leatherheads, sound almost too good to be true: a screwball comedy set in the 1920s, with Clooney as a scrappy hustler trying to put a respectable face on the then-down-and-dirty sport of professional football.

The opening scenes are full of promise, as the crowd cheers on Princeton phenom Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (The Office star John Krasinski). In fact, for its entire two hours, Leatherheads is rarely less than very promising — and also rarely more.

The screenplay offers a minor-key variation on that enduring folk wisdom that, be it on the football field or battlefield, America loves a good hero, regardless of whether his heroism is genuine.

Here, the self-made hero is Carter, who took time off from school to fight in World War I, where he is said to have single-handedly forced the surrender of an entire German company. That faint whiff of exaggeration is enough for the Chicago Tribune to put ace reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) on Carter's case. It's thus that Carter and Lexie cross paths with one Dodge Connelly (Clooney), the down-on-his-luck captain of the nearly bankrupt Duluth Bulldogs. Where Carter regularly takes to the lush college field before a few thousand adoring fans, Dodge and his ragtag teammates play on muddied, makeshift fields before crowds of a few . . . well, just a few.

So Dodge, whose eyes twinkle with entrepreneurial invention, comes up with a plan for Carter to help save his pigskin.

It's an appealing screwball premise, and there's little question that Clooney has done his homework. He's decked out Leatherheads with fast-talking ink-slingers who seem to have walked right out of The Front Page, a train that might have pulled out of Twentieth Century station, and a battle-of-the-sexes bedroom scene borrowed from It Happened One Night. He's also cast actors who play very well in period mode, and the dialogue is strewn with rat-a-tat rejoinders.

So what's the problem, exactly? Partly that, for all that looks and sounds right here, Leatherheads never quite feels right. The tempo seems a half-beat or so off — it aims for clickety-clack and ends up closer to clickety-clunk. And for all the novelty of setting a movie against the early days of our national pastime, Leatherheads devotes curiously little time to on-field action, even though that action makes up some of its liveliest scenes.

These aren't easy criticisms to make. Clooney may be the last of a breed of mini-moguls who uses charm and clout to back risky projects. And, in a generally bleak time for American movies, he's done a great deal to sustain our belief in the possibilities of smart Hollywood movies for grownups. But Clooney also makes us expect the best of him each and every time out, and Leatherheads is a good deal less than that.

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