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Football follies
Overall feel of the period piece is perfect for the first 90 minutes

Leatherheads

(PG-13)

2 1/2 stars out of 4

In the wake of two very good dramatic films ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" and "Good Night, and Good Luck") comes "Leatherheads," director George Clooney's first stab at comedy.

As anyone will attest, comedy is the most difficult genre in which to succeed and he certainly gives it a good go, but Clooney fails to adhere to one of the most basic comic rules: Don't overstay your welcome.

Exhibiting the same level of ambition and enthusiasm as his previous efforts, Clooney again chooses to go with a period piece. Here, it is the wacky, screwball romantic comedies of the '40s and '50s. He gets a lot right. The tone, pace, look and overall feel are perfect - for the first 90 minutes. It is when Clooney and his screenwriters tiptoe into morality and overstatement does the movie lose its bearings and leave the audience wanting less.

Unlike in his other films where he showed up only sporadically (or not at all), Clooney also takes the lead role as Dodge, a fictional pioneer of American professional football. Dodge is blessed with the gift of gab and like Clooney himself, speaks volumes with sly smiles, crinkled winks and the inquisitive tilt of a noggin. Clooney's biggest downfall was casting himself as the lead. He plays himself and as a result, takes the audience out of the moment. Like many of Tom Cruise's movies, the character gets pushed aside by the star's personality; they're too

much alike.

Dodge's efforts in promoting professional football (not yet even the NFL) are sabotaged by the headlines covering the exploits of Carter "Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski), a superstar Princeton athlete and World War I hero. Carter's agent C.C. (Jonathan Pryce) has his own best interests at heart and when Dodge comes calling with hat in hand to keep his fledgling league afloat, C.C. negotiates with the fervor of the devil.

Stuck somewhere in the middle of all the men is the plucky Lexie (Renee Zellweger), an ambitious Chicago journalist who might have some wartime dirt on Carter and is doing everything she can to deny her attraction to Dodge. Recalling Jennifer Jason Leigh in "The Hudsucker Proxy," Zellweger is a fast-talking, modern Millie with a romantic soft spot. Our job: to figure out which of the two will eventually snare her heart.

When director Clooney sticks with the romantic and light comedy aspects of the story, all of it works magnificently. The rapid-fire dialogue, period setting, love triangle and well-choreographed physicality all hit their marks. It is when the movie starts to get heavy and meaningful that it all heads south.

Just when you're ready to get up and leave, Clooney and his writers tack on an extended and overlong ending that robs the movie of all of its initial charms. The extraneous matter adds nothing to the story and negates its welcoming, lighter feel. It suddenly becomes serious and symbolic for no real apparent reason. (Universal)

SideBar: RATING SCALE

4 stars - Drop everything you're doing and see it now!

3 stars - Put it on your to-do list

2 stars - Wait for the video

1 star - Not worth sitting through