I guess when you're as good-looking, well-liked and successful as George Clooney you get to spend north of $35 million pretending you're Cary Grant. But couldn't he have chosen something on par with The Philadelphia Story or His Girl Friday? Instead we barely get Mr. Lucky.

Though it clearly aims to be a classic screwball comedy on par with the work of George Cukor, Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges, Leatherheads is really well-made mediocrity. Some of the fault lies with Clooney's awkwardly paced direction. Some of it lies with bland-as-plain-toast co-star John Krasinski. But most of the fault falls to screenwriters Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, who have neither the wit nor skill to pull together what's essentially two different stories: a screwball love triangle and the origins of professional football. The first has flashes of energy and charm — courtesy of Clooney, who could generate romantic chemistry with a lamppost — but the second is a total botch, unable to generate excitement, character or laughs.

Clooney stars as aging football player Dodge Connelly. It's 1925, and football isn't much of a sport. Games are played in cow pastures and on local fields with rules that are often made up. Attendance is abysmal and sinking fast. College football, on the other hand, is all the rage and no one is bigger that Princeton star and heroic WWI vet Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski). Dodge sees an opportunity to turn his beloved sport into a moneymaking machine by bringing Carter into the fold. Unfortunately, The Chicago Tribune's blonde bombshell, Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger), is onto a hot story that the war-hero football star may not quite be what he claims. So Lexie seduces Carter and Dodge seduces Lexie and, somewhere along the line, football becomes a new national pastime.

There's no denying that Clooney has taste and charm. He's assembled a team of top talent that often fails to deliver. Though cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel captures the wonderful period sets in gorgeously burnished images, Randy Newman phones in the jaunty score by cribbing from his Monsters Inc. soundtrack. Great supporting actors such as Stephen Root, Jack Thompson and Jonathan Pryce are left stranded in underwritten roles while Zellweger, who does feisty just fine, lacks the smolder and sophistication her character demands. And even those fumbles wouldn't lose the game.

Leatherheads' tone is uneven and its narrative is an overstuffed mess. Not only don't its scenes build on one another, they actually feel incidental to the story they're telling. You get the feeling that you could move them around and no one would notice. The love triangle is indecisive and, halfway into the film, it loses track of football altogether. Moreover, the movie goes on too long and even when it reaches its muddy gridiron showdown, fails to thrill or delight (despite a clever final play twist).

That said, Clooney is in good company. Many contemporary writers and filmmakers have struggled to re-create the charm, wit and wonder of classic screwball comedies and failed miserably. Even Clooney's pals the Coen Brothers crashed and burned with Hudsucker Proxy.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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