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‘Leatherheads’ fumbles, fades, punts

George Clooney’s attempt to revive the fast-talking romantic comedies of yesteryear fails to snap.

If anyone could embody the brash, sexy, banter-swapping leading man of Hollywood’s golden age, it’s George Clooney. His roguish, aging football star of “Leatherheads” falls somewhere between Clark Gable’s snappy reporter in “It Happened One Night” and Paul Newman’s devious confidence man in “The Sting.”

But while actor Clooney has the stuff to bring classic comedy back to the screen, director Clooney can’t quite manage the feat. Between the slack, wheezy pacing and a singularly miscast leading lady, “Leatherheads” shoots for the Frank Capra/Howard Hawks goal posts but instead winds up getting bogged down midfield.

Clooney stars as Dodge Connelly, star player for the Duluth Bulldogs, a pro football team so decrepit that they have to forfeit a game when a kid runs off with their only ball. Mind you, it’s 1925, and the pros have no backing, little following and very few actual rules. All the attention and glamour goes to college football, whose shining light is Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), a Princeton student and a war hero to boot.

Of course, the whole “war hero” part is a little sketchy; a fellow soldier has approached the Chicago Tribune to suggest that the story about a platoon of Germans surrendering to Carter isn’t quite true. So the paper sends out “girl reporter” — because movies like this always have a “girl reporter”  — Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) to get the full story. Just as Lexie’s getting to know Carter, Dodge arrives with a proposition, offering Carter big bucks to come play pro football. Suddenly, Carter’s fame has the Bulldogs playing in a real stadium, a big step up from the cow pastures where they had previously plied their trade.

Naturally, Dodge and Carter both compete for Lexie’s affections, which makes her unsure about whether or not to publish the story about Carter being a fake, and it all leads up to a big game where … well, where not much is at stake, really. Pro football suddenly has a commissioner, and it’s all the end of an era, but the storytelling in “Leatherheads” is so wobbly, there’s very little import to any of this. (“The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings” did a much better job at this kind of story, telling a fictionalized version of how Jackie Robinson’s ascension to the major leagues spelled the end of the Negro Baseball Leagues.)

The real revelation of “Leatherheads” is John Krasinski — fans of “The Office” know that he’s got a great deadpan and that he arches a mean eyebrow, but this movie reveals that he’s got a real gift for physical comedy. His tall, rubbery frame gives him a goofy grace; 60 years ago, MGM would have taught him to dance and made him Gene Kelly’s comic foil. Here, though, Krasinski’s youth and litheness make for an entertaining counterpoint to Clooney’s seasoned gravity.

But then there’s Zellweger who — even if the poor thing could actually move her face — can’t come close to filling the pumps of screen comediennes like Rosalind Russell or Carole Lombard, even though the role is clearly created in homage to them. Heck, she even pales next to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s rat-a-tat journalist in “The Hudsucker Proxy.” Lauren Graham or Gina Gershon might have created a convincing Lexie, but Zellweger puts the “bad” in “badinage.”