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Film review: ‘Leatherheads’ is winning film

Clooney and his co-stars have a ball in sports comedy

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John Krasinski, left, and George Clooney, who also directed, star in the comedy "Leatherheads."

John Krasinski, left, and George Clooney, who also directed, star in the comedy “Leatherheads.”

Melinda Sue Gordon, Universal

LEATHERHEADS — *** — George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski; rated PG-13 (violence, vulgarity, profanity, slurs)

Parts of "Leatherheads" play out like a highlight reel of scenes from earlier George Clooney comedies.

Of course, given that those sequences recall some goofily amusing bits from such Clooney hits as "Intolerable Cruelty," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and the "Ocean's" movies, that's not such a bad thing.

Those films were all crowd-pleasers, and this screwball/period sports comedy may be, as well. It's surprisingly, refreshingly effective at times, and it is old-fashioned in several respects.

Clooney directed the movie, which is set in the mid-1920s, and stars as Jimmy "Dodge" Connelly, a middle-age professional player and coach for the struggling Duluth, Minn., Bulldogs football team.

The Bulldogs franchise is in danger of folding, as is the entire league they're in. That is, until Dodge manages to entice college football star Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski) to join the team.

But along with bigger crowds, Carter brings another, seemingly unwanted element with him: Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger), a Chicago reporter who's been assigned to write an incriminating story about Carter's alleged World War I heroism.

With Carter on the roster, the Bulldogs begin winning. But there's also conflict, with both Dodge and Carter competing for Lexie's affections, as well as control of the team.

The script comes from a pair of Sports Illustrated columnists, Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly. And the period-appropriate score is courtesy Oscar-winning songwriter/composer Randy Newman.

And Clooney's loose direction has the look and feel similar to that of his frequent collaborators, the Coen brothers, as well as their obvious inspiration, the legendary Preston Sturges ("Sullivan's Travels").

Admittedly, the whole thing runs out of steam about two-thirds of the way through. But it helps that there's a very likable cast. Clooney's caddish character fits him like a second skin, and he's well-matched with Zellweger, who can banter with the best of them.

Krasinski (TV's "The Office") is good as the third part of the love triangle, while Jonathan Pryce is appropriately slimy as Carter's scheming agent.

"Leatherheads" is rated PG-13 for scenes of violence, mostly comic in nature (athletics-based action, fisticuffs, brawling, as well as some warfare), some suggestive banter and references, scattered profanity (most of mild, religious based terms), and racial slurs and other derogatory language. Running time: 114 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com