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Screwball football

Ignore the slight and just enjoy the game

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OK, let's get the unpleasantness out of the way. North Carolinians -- and, particularly, Charlotteans -- who go to see Leatherheads expecting to catch the state and/or city receiving gracious billing are in for a rude awakening. Toward the end of the closing credits, the line simply reads, "Filmed in South Carolina."

Excuse me? Certainly, much of the movie was shot with the aid of our neighbors to the south, but a sizable chunk was filmed right here in the Tar Heel State: Statesville, Winston-Salem, Salisbury and, of course, Charlotte (Memorial Stadium, to be exact) were just some of the area locations to play host to the making of this motion picture. And while the Charlotte and Triad Film Commissions are indeed thanked (along with South Carolina's) in the credits, any other acknowledgment of N.C. resources are conspicuously missing (at least based on the advance screening print; perhaps the problem will be rectified before this Friday's national opening?).

Ah, well, we shouldn't be too surprised: In the past, network news anchors and national sports commentators have confused North Carolina with South Carolina, and in the minds of many non-Southerners, the two states are one anyway. Why should Hollywood filmmakers view the region any differently?

At any rate, only truly Dixie-fied viewers will allow this slight to tarnish their enjoyment of Leatherheads, an old-fashioned rom-com handled with delicacy by director and star George Clooney. Working from a first-time script by acclaimed sports writers Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, Clooney offers an occasionally wistful look at the early days of professional football, when its popularity was nil and it was viewed as college football's deformed and ignored stepbrother. The year is 1925, and somehow, Dodge Connolly (Clooney) has managed to scrape together a career as a football player, assembling his motley crew to travel all over the country to play games in which attendance is anemic, established rules are nonexistent and a player is as likely to throw a punch as catch the pigskin. These are tough times, and just as it appears the entire league will have to fold, Dodge comes up with a brainstorm.

Why not convince Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski), the nation's most popular college football star, to put his studies on hold and join the pro ranks? With Carter -- a beloved World War I hero, to boot -- drawing in thousands of fans, the sport is guaranteed to catch on. Carter agrees to the proposition, just about the time the Chicago daily has elected to send one of its best reporters, tough-talking Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), to determine the authenticity of Carter's WWI exploits. Gaining access to the team, Lexie uses (to paraphrase dwarf Grumpy) her feminine wiles to cozy up to Carter, all the while engaging in verbal jousts with Dodge. Yet, over time, she begins to spot worthwhile qualities in both men, making it difficult to continue digging up dirt on the seemingly squeaky-clean Carter.

Clooney is an unabashed lover of classic screwball comedies from Hollywood's Golden Age, and he's gone on record stating that his influences for Leatherheads included works by such great directors as Howard Hawks and George Cukor. His biggest (unacknowledged) influences, however, stem from more recent times, as it's difficult to watch this film without being reminded of the pair of pictures he made with Joel and Ethan Coen. Perennially growing in stature as an actor and director, it's easy to envision Clooney studying the Coens' M.O. while perched on their sets, since Leatherheads sports the same burnished period look as O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the same screwball comedy stylings as the underrated Intolerable Cruelty.

As screenwriters, Brantley and Reilly are, not surprisingly, clearly more comfortable with the gridiron aspects of the story than with the ofttimes flat romance that never quiet manages to make itself at home within the film's structure. It's not entirely their fault, however, since two of the three leading actors prove to be competent rather than inspired. Clooney is on his game as the aging brawler who's eventually disheartened by the rigid direction the sport starts to take (all those infernal rules!), but the likable Krasinski often gets defeated by the restrictions of his colorless part. And as Lexie, Zellweger delivers the script's zingers with aplomb, but she isn't outwardly quite as brash or brassy as the role requires (for a perfect channeling of a 1930s-style screwball character a la those played by Jean Arthur or Katharine Hepburn, see Jennifer Jason Leigh in the Coens' The Hudsucker Proxy).

Ever the jokester, Clooney doesn't rely on his writers to come up with all the funny stuff. Leatherheads is full of visual sight gags, whether the humor derives from elaborate setups (the final football game is full of nicely choreographed physical comedy) or merely from repeating the same shot for maximum potency (dig the guy in the swimming pool). Admittedly, the humor is usually as muted as most other aspects (the look, the performances) of this low-key production. But Clooney obviously sensed such an approach suited this material, and why mess with a winning game plan?

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