George Clooney has been noticeably fascinated with periods of American history besides our own. In Good Night and Good Luck, Clooney directed himself as a producer working under Edward Murrow during the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, and in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, he directed himself as a CIA operative during the 1970s. Clooney continues this retroactive tendency, as well as his predilection for directing himself, with Leatherheads, a movie about the modernization and codification of professional football in the 1920s. It's a fun but flimsy film, but one which contains a good deal of fluffy yet forgettable material.
Leatherheads is concerned with a small-town professional football team in the days before the hyper-commercialization of the game and, for that matter, before there were really any rules or regulations to speak of. The film meticulously captures the 1920s in all of its anachronistic fashions and clipped dialogue. Refreshingly, the film is never visibly burdened by being a period film; it never feels stuffy or burdened by the past. What Clooney as a director does fail to achieve, however, is some semblance of gravity to the film's events. Both the transformation of a major American sport and the investigation of a war hero are examined, but neither is treated with much force or clarity. The events simply unfurl on screen without much memorable presentation or particular enthusiasm. Clooney does imbue his work with moments of cartoonish absurdity, be it burlesqued fistfights or cutesy looks at the camera during chase scenes, but these achingly hokey moments only add to the flimsy quality of much of the film.
Clooney, as an actor, is compatible with the film as usual. He looks his best when photographing himself on a vintage motorcycle, a cocksure grin on his face. As the quarterback of his rough and tumble team, Clooney exhibits comical brevity, and as a devilish cad off the field he reprises his role as the smooth yet vaguely buffoonish character he created in O Brother Where Art Thou? Renée Zellweger, playing a Chicago Tribune writer, investigates a war hero (The Office's John Krasinski as a soldier turned college football star). Zellweger tries to infuse her character with spunky feminine vim and vigor, but instead fumbles her way through her overly precocious character.
Leatherheads is light and unpretentious but perhaps a bit too predictable, even for a sports film. Clooney captures the time period wonderfully, but his direction does little else to aid a relatively lackluster film. The performances are enjoyable, but for the marquee quality of the names, little glamour or talent is in abundance in the film. For Clooney, perhaps, it may be time for his directorial eye to look to the present for his next project.