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WHAT: “Leatherheads”

RATED: PG-13 for brief strong language

RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

Clooney fumbles behind the camera

George Clooney and Renee Zellweger seem to be on the same page.

So the two leads, at least, know how to play “screwball comedy” in the throwback farce, “Leatherheads,” a romantic romp through the pre-history of the National Football League.

Even John Krasinski, of TV’s “The Office,” handles his earnest “other guy” role (usually played by Ralph Bellamy in the ’40s) with a bland, gee-whiz humility.

But behind the camera, director Clooney doesn’t have the knack for this sort of snappy free-for-all, the zippy comedies exemplified by the classics “His Girl Friday,” “Ball of Fire” and the like. That sort of comedy was brash, loud and fast. “Leatherheads” doesn’t have the “boop boop be-doop.”

Clooney, his editor and his cinematographer treat this the way he did his last directing job, “Good Night and Good Luck.” He thought “period piece.” He thought “sepia-toned” colors and “pictorially pretty.”

Doesn’t Clooney remember Steve Martin’s golden rule? “Comedy is not pretty.”

In 1925, professional football is failing. The teams, pick-up squads of miners, veterans and farm laborers, stage knock-down, drag-out brawls in nearly empty cow pastures, games that often end with more knock-down, drag-out brawls.

Dodge Connelly (Clooney) is a co-owner/star of the Duluth Bulldogs. They can’t manage a road trip without some franchise – Toledo, Decatur or Milwaukee – folding. What the league needs is a draw.

That’s where Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford (Krasinski) comes in. The Princeton star is the toast of the land, a decorated World War I hero who pulls in 40,000-plus per game. If Dodge can con the squeaky-clean Rutherford’s manager (an oily Jonathan Pryce) into a deal, maybe the league will be saved. Before you can sing a verse of “Hold that Tiger,” the deed is done.

Lexie Littleton (Zellweger) is the fly in that ointment. She’s a Chicago Tribune reporter assigned to uncover the truth about Rutherford’s war heroism. She could blow the lid off the whole league-saving deal.

“You’re the kinda cocktail that comes on like sugar, but kicks you in the tail,” Dodge snarls.

“Stop it. You’re just acting like a big baby because you miss your mother’s bosoms,” Lexie snarls herself.

It must be love.

If only the whole movie had been that snappy, as quick as Clooney’s eye-arching pickup line, “You’re only as young as the women you feel.” But the script, one-time Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly’s attempt to find fun in the days when Red Grange signed with the Chicago Bears and saved the NFL, isn’t up to it.

Every moment of seat-of-the-pants pizazz is followed by quiet, tiresome reflections on how “the game’ll never be the same.”

The movie is filmed “slow” and cut slower. This should have been a 90-minute fun-and-gun sprinkled with zingers. Instead it’s a 110-minute slog through the mud with pauses for an occasional laugh.

It’s watchable, but Clooney’s expressions when he takes a punch and Zellweger’s patented pursed lips (she makes a pretty good Barbara Stanwyck) hint at the movie that might have been.

If the real NFL had started off this tired, we’d be spending our Sundays watching jai alai.


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