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Leatherheads (****)

George Clooney’s Leatherheads begins with the old Universal Pictures logo (the one with the art deco font swirling around a crystalline globe) and doesn’t quite live up to that promise—well, not stylistically at least. Because it’s in sepia-toned colour (unlike Clooney’s last film, the sumptuously monochrome Good Night, And Good Luck) and employs an omnipresent jazz soundtrack by Randy Newman (’30s comedies never had such things), it presents more as one of those post-1970s, perfectly art-decorated nostalgia trips—à la Woody Allen’s Radio Days and Sweet and Lowdown—rather than the genuine article.

This is the smallest of qualms, however, given that the spirit of Leatherheads is exactly what it should be. Like Good Night, And Good Luck, Leatherheads takes pacing risks in order to recall older, sophisticated ways of moviemaking. The script for Leatherheads, written by Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, is an old-school three-act-er. First, we meet the Duluth Bulldogs’ Dodge Connolly (Clooney), whose team is raffish and rough. When the Bulldogs’ sponsorship falls through, Dodge recruits football superstar Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), whom journalist Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) follows to Duluth, attempting to demystify his status as a Great War hero. Finally, we get a showdown: a great, hilarious football game and attendant comeuppances for all three of the leads.

This herky-jerky mix of sports and newsroom movie works: by the end of Leatherheads, it is clear that the film is about mendacity, American-style—about how a fanatical craving for heroism tends to be accompanied by an equally fanatical desire for it to be (impossibly) ethically upright. Wars of all kinds characterize the film, from the Rosalind Russell–Cary Grant bantering between Lexie and Dodge, to the tension between the bureaucratic corporatism of professional sports and its dirtier amateur counterpart, to a brilliant finale that conflates the game field with the war trenches. Football films—and, for that matter, contemporary comedies—don’t get much smarter, or more scrupulously entertaining, than this.

Leatherheads is now playing at the Varsity (55 Bloor St. W.), Beach Cinemas (1651 Queen St. E.) and Cineplex Odeon Queensway (1025 The Queensway).

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