In 1925, U.S. professional football is an afterthought, a game played by “boys who refuse to grow up.” The real, exciting and popular action, according to Leatherheads, is college football. While crowds cheer wildly at stadiums built for the teams at Michigan State, Navy, and Notre Dame, players for the Akron Indians and Decatur Staleys are relegated to literal cow fields, stomping and sliding in mud, drinking, punching, and grinding their way through games attended by precious the occasional farmer or local kid with an extra nickel to spend.
Wily, battered, and more or less dedicated to the sport, Duluth Bulldogs leader Dodge Connolly (George Clooney) sets his face and takes his hits, patiently awaiting the moment when one of his trick plays gains ground. His teammates are mostly out of shape and good-natured about their lack of traction. They ride trains from town to town, never knowing if the next game will be cancelled because the team has gone under or the home team has been unable to supply the ball. A labor of love without rules or regulations, pro football’s going nowhere fast, but Dodge and his cohorts persist, against all odds, because the alternative is demoralizing: the guys would have to head back to the mines or the cornfields, or, in Dodge’s case, nowhere in particular. When the Bulldogs lose their sponsor, he sits sheepishly before a jobs placement officer, who suggests he must have learned a trade at some point during his lifetime. “Not one you’d like,” he smiles.
Up against it without his team, Dodge comes up with a plan: he’ll get a college star to play for Duluth. And not just any star, but the star of the moment, Princeton’s Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), a speedy runner and World War I hero to boot. As Dodge makes the deal with Carter’s agent, the exceedingly self-interested CC Frazier (Jonathan Pryce), Carter smiles broadly and nods, happy when it turns out that he’s the subject of a Chicago Tribune feature by the most engaging Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger). As Dodge has already met and flirted rather fiercely with Lexie (see also: Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday), the boys who won’t grow up are set on a collision course, as, indeed, the pert reporter’s future also appears to be a function of her choice of men: the adorable child or the dashing elder his football opponents call “grandpa.”
Pleasant and clever, Leatherheads is not built for surprises. (It was also better the first time, when it was called Bull Durham.) As Dodge and CC connive to guide the game toward the mass media attention and gargantuan profits that the eventual NFL will garner, the film offers occasional insight into the enduringly crooked business of professional sports. In Leatherheads’ fictional version, the inception—hurried along by the appointment of a first commissioner (Peter Gerety)—is appropriately premised on money and myth.
Here the moral problem is embodied by Carter, whose Sergeant York-style story comes into question when a former squad mate tells the Trib editor (Jack Thompson) that what happened in the Argonne isn’t exactly what CC’s been promoting. Lexie, like Barbara Stanwyck or Jean Arthur before her, is assigned to dig up the dirt, which means her flirtations with Carter aren’t quite so selfless as Annie Savoy’s with Nuke LaLoosh. Still, Crash, er, Dodge, is worried enough that he seeks repeatedly to intervene in what seems a burgeoning romance, enticing Lexie with the suggestion that he is, despite or because of his own childish charms, a more age-appropriate choice.
For her part, Lexie has close-to-bee-stung lips and great hats, as well as the expected moral qualms about her assignment and promised reward (an assistant editorship at the paper). But Lexie’s desires and drives are never so entertaining as the men’s boundless confusions, and the film does have a kind of secret heart that aligns it with director Clooney’s previous two films, the perversely brilliant Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and the critically acclaimed Good Night, and Good Luck. As different as they are in styles and tones, all three movies consider the ways that institutions grant license for profiteering and corruption, and especially men’s acting out in search of masculine identity, status, and community.
In the case of Leatherheads, this acting out is channeled conveniently through a game, raucous and inherently violent. Carter is charismatically idealistic but also naïve, such that his faith in order, and more specifically in the father figures (CC, Dodge, and ultimately, the Commissioner) who train him up in social and ethical order, leads him into appropriate trouble, the woman-as-object occasioning his education (not to say his comeuppance). Dodge, on the other hand, knows better from jump, even though he pretends not to. In love with his athletic opportunities and hardscrabble life, with the sheer lunacy of the game and especially the wildly imaginative cheat plays, he resists order… until he doesn’t.
And that’s when he and the film get less fun and more conventional. It’s like the movie can’t help itself. At last he has to step off, because the order of the game is tilting commercially more than quirkily. And still, Leatherheads offers a not-so-subtle paean to the All-American Hero, no matter how false or crass. And the NFL, just visible over the film’s horizon, will only make this paean more insistent and sensational.