‘Leatherheads’: Semipro Life, By Kurt Loder

George Clooney and Renée Zellweger in a sports comedy with vintage class.

“Leatherheads” is a movie of steady, if unspectacular, pleasure. Nominally a story about the birth of professional football in the mid-1920s, when the sport was mostly a collegiate attraction, the picture is really a fizzy salute to the screwball comedies that were yet to come, in the 1930s and ’40s. In the snap and zing of its dialogue and the precision of its period tone, the movie is a small, unassuming jewel.

It’s had an unusually long gestation, which may be part of why the picture has turned out so right. The script originated 20 years ago with two Sports Illustrated reporters, Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly. In the early ’90s, they managed to get it to director Steven Soderbergh, and several years later he showed it to his friend George Clooney. Clooney liked the script — he said he saw it as “a Howard Hawks kind of comedy,” an offbeat idea for a sports story — but he was busy. Several more years later he was less busy, and when he pulled the “Leatherheads” script out for another look, he decided to start polishing it for production. He also decided to direct and star in the film — both excellent ideas.

What Clooney has made, against all sorts of odds, is a very Howard Hawks kind of sports comedy. He plays Jimmy “Dodge” Connelly, an aging football player who’s having no luck turning his raggedy regional team, the Duluth Bulldogs, into a professional outfit. When he hears about a Princeton hotshot named Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) — a young war hero whose gridiron charisma is drawing huge crowds — Dodge sets out to recruit him for the Bulldogs and, with any luck, kick-start pro football.

Also on Rutherford’s trail, however, is a Chicago Tribune reporter named Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), and she has a very different agenda. Lexie has heard that there’s something fishy about Rutherford’s war heroics (he’s said to have single-handedly captured a whole platoon of German soldiers), and she’s accepted her editor’s assignment to expose him.

Lexie seems pretty clearly modeled on Hildy Johnson, the wisecracking reporter played by Rosalind Russell in Hawks’ 1940 screwball classic, “His Girl Friday”; and Zellweger — displaying an unexpected gift for drawling sarcasm (as well as convincing romantic chemistry with Clooney) — is given some near-Hawksian wisecracks to deliver. (Told by a pickup artist she’s rebuffed that “I didn’t come here to be insulted,” Lexie cracks back, “Where do you usually go?”) Dodge Connelly doesn’t equate with Walter Burns, the breezy editor played by Cary Grant in the Hawks movie; but Clooney has more than a little of Grant’s smooth, imperturbable cool, and he also gets some nice lines to bite into. (Addressed with condescending formality by Lexie when they first meet, Clooney’s lovable lug responds, “Mr. Connelly’s buried next to my mother. I’m Dodge.”)

“Leatherheads” has a vintage charm that’s admirably unironic — there’s no smirk of “tribute” about it. The picture flirts with slapstick and sometimes happily succumbs to it, exactly as the old films on which it’s modeled often did. The cast — which includes Jonathan Pryce as a duplicitous manager and Clooney vets Stephen Root (as a booze-fueled reporter) and Keith Loneker (as a mountainous Bulldog) — is an appealingly good-natured crew; and as Rutherford, John Krasinski — an actor who’s able to project both boyish warmth and intellectual concern — manages the considerable feat of holding the screen opposite Clooney without melting in the heat of his trademark movie-star mega-wattage. (That Clooney generously facilitates such performances is part of what makes him so mega.) The story is cleverly constructed and often very funny; and if it doesn’t quite attain the screwball heights scaled by such golden-age gagsters as Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, it occasionally comes close. These days, that’s pretty high.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Leatherheads.”

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s review of “The Flight of the Red Balloon,” also new in theaters this week.

For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.