(CNN) -- We're not exactly starved for sports comedies these days. Will Ferrell, in particular, seems to be working his way through every form of competition that's been devised.
Renee Zellweger and George Clooney take a ride in "Leatherheads."
But George Clooney attempts something a little more sophisticated in "Leatherheads": a screwball comedy set during the early days of professional football in the mid-1920s. And like any true clown, he falls flat on his face. Frequently.
So how come we're not laughing?
Maybe it's because his timing is off -- by six or seven decades.
The screwball comedy represents a pinnacle of American filmmaking. The classic works of Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges married witty verbal banter with lowbrow physical slapstick, finding their focus in the battle of the sexes and making a mockery of the puritanical Production Code.
Many filmmakers have tried to restore that sparkle over the years -- "Some Like It Hot" was its last hurrah -- but even such gifted mimics as the Coen brothers struggled with it in "O Brother Where Art Thou" and "Intolerable Cruelty." The sexual tension at the heart of the screwball universe just doesn't stick in a permissive society.
If Clooney seems drawn to this genre, it's not just because he has fine taste and a healthy sense of humor. Physically, he's a throwback to heartthrobs like Clark Gable and Cary Grant. Such good fortune seems to require a certain wry detachment: You're in on the joke, or you risk becoming it. In "Leatherheads," Clooney lays it on a bit thick -- no reaction shot is undersold -- but at least he's game. Watch Clooney and John Krasinski talk about "Leatherheads" »
In the film, which Clooney directed from a script by Duncan Brantley and former Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly, he's "Dodge" Connelly, a pro who leads the Duluth Bulldogs with his head down and two fists flying. But the league is falling apart. Sponsors distance themselves from the chaos while crowds prefer the more civilized and orderly college football scene.
It's Dodge who thinks to capitalize on the popularity of college star and decorated World War I hero Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski). The Bulldogs can afford to pay him big bucks so long as he brings the college fans with him. It's a win-win situation, except that Chicago Tribune ace reporter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger) has been assigned to cook the goose that lays the golden eggs. She has a lead that the Bullet wasn't the war hero he's cracked up to be.
The romantic triangle that follows is as sketchy as it is predictable. Peevish and ill at ease, Zellweger is miscast as a hard-boiled "modern" woman. She's no Rosalind Russell, that's for sure. Krasinski is winning as the straight, clean-cut young athlete -- he's the only one who doesn't seem to be acting in quotation marks, and he's got a talent for physical comedy -- but when it comes to the crunch, when he should be wrestling with his conscience or fighting for his woman, the Bullet's simply not there.
Chances are, those scenes wound up on the cutting-room floor as Clooney struggled to bring his movie under two hours (with six minutes to spare) and still make sense of the laborious machinations that clog up the third act.
Shot in muted, muddy browns and with a jaunty ragtime score by Randy Newman, "Leatherheads" is artfully constructed but tediously self-conscious. It would dearly like to be a light and frothy tribute to the unruly, rough-and-tumble pioneers of pro football, before the game was changed forever, but somewhere along the way, the champagne lost its fizz.
Unfortunately for Clooney, his playbook is looking seriously out of date.
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