George Clooney does his Cary Grant best to make 1920s football something worth watching.
The year is 1925. It's a time when you can meet people on the street corner with names like Lexie and Suds. A day and age when a female reporter is a hard-edged dame and proud of it. An era when college football equals stadiums filled with rah-rah-sis-boom-ba, while "pro" ball is little more than guys with hand-sewn jerseys thrashing around in a cow field.
All that free-for-all thrashing, though, is what keeps Dodge Connelly in the game. Sure, he's 45 and penniless, but football is his passion. And he's determined to see his ragtag team legitimize the professional side of the sport.
While struggling to keep that team, the Bulldogs, afloat, Dodge comes up with a great idea to recruit Princeton football star (and World War I hero) Carter Rutherford. The young man has been drawing crowds of 40,000 to see him play college ball. So Dodge makes the deal and at first it seems to be a match made in gridiron heaven.
Then, along comes Lexie Littleton, a sassy reporter for the Tribune who's looking to dig up some dirt on the squeaky-clean superstar. She finds out that Carter's war hero reputation is an overblown fib. This could be the story that makes her career and ruins Dodge's football dreams. But there's a problem. Carter is a nice guy. And the big lug has a crush on her. Not only that, she's starting to fall for the ruggedly handsome Dodge. This is gonna get messy. On and off the field.
Carter accidentally captures a group of enemy soldiers in the war and is convinced by others to take on the mantle of a hero. In spite of this deception, he's really an honest and humble guy. (And he ultimately admits the truth.)
Carter also works hard to improve the Bulldogs by giving them new plays, shoes and equipment, and he inspires them to be disciplined. Dodge earnestly cares for his teammates and works hard to keep the team together.
The movie points to love resulting in marriage.
A signpost reads, "God will judge your thoughts."
Some of Lexie's dresses are moderately low-cut. A man ogles her legs as she walks away. (The camera watches his reaction and not her legs.) When a man approaches Lexie with a compliment, she rebuffs his advances with, "You're substituting my bosoms for your mother's." When Lexie walks into the press booth, the male reporters are surprised to see her and one suggests that she used her sexual wiles to earn a place there.
Lexie purposely mispronounces a girl's name as "Nipplewidth." Lexie and Dodge share a few passionate kisses. A jealous and drunken Carter implies that Lexie is a prostitute when he learns that she's been kissing Dodge.
Most of the violent action takes the form of roughhouse play on the sports field or macho group fistfights. It's played to slapstick effect and results in black eyes and a few cut lips.
Examples: A man gets a football kicked into his groin. Another player is crushed and completely buried in the mud by a crowd of huge men. Play degenerates into wild flailing tackles, elbows to faces and punches to chins.
On the brawling front, Dodge and Carter wildly punch each other in the face while taking swigs from a liquor bottle. A fight breaks out in a bar and results in pummeled faces, smashed furniture (over backs) and broken bottles (over heads). Dodge and Lexie run from a police raid on a speakeasy, and the police shoot at them.
Crude or Profane Language
The s-word is spit out twice. "H---" is used over 10 times, while "a--" and "d--n" make infrequent appearances. There are over a dozen misuses of God's and Jesus' names, including God's being combined with "d--n" in a half-dozen instances. Carter's agent, CC, complains that pro football is nothing more than a bunch of farmers busting each other's heads "from here to East Jesus."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Beer and whiskey flow freely in a number of scenes that take place in a speakeasy. Several people (including Dodge and Lexie) take swigs from liquor flasks that they or other people keep hidden in coat pockets. Professed non-drinker Carter tells a story of passing out from a drink during the war and, later, he drinks in anger and gets into a fistfight.
Smoking is common. Many of the characters, including Lexie, light up cigarettes and cigars. Players even smoke while warming up for a game. A teen water boy smokes a couple of times.
Other Negative Elements
An adult bribes a kid to steal the team's only football. CC is an underhanded agent who cares only about his slice of the financial pie and twists the truth or bribes others to do so.
Leatherheads has an appealing moxie about it. The George Clooney-helmed feature feels like an authentic mash-up of old-time romantic comedies (such as It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday) and Bull Durham-ish sports flicks. The film looks spot-on with its period backdrops and golden candlelight glow. It sounds great with original Randy Newman tunes. And handsome stars Clooney and Renée Zellweger convincingly capture the nostalgically glib, goofball rapport of yesteryear's Gable and Colbert or Grant and Russell.
But for all of its Capra-esque footwork and Hawks-like forward passes, Leatherheads ends up fumbling the ball. The rambling script could have used some editing. Crudities and repeated abuses of God's name were totally avoidable. And a string of visits to gin-soaked speakeasies and belts from hidden liquor flasks paints the '20s as one long besotted lost weekend.
There's a small statement made about making wise choices and being honest, but what this lighthearted tale with its old-school patina is really about is rough-and-tumble footballing, quick-witted romance and boozy brawls.