Not long ago, an Entertainment Weekly poll suggested movie-going audiences tend to choose movies based on plot and concept rather than star appeal – a humbling conceit that we enjoy flicks for their density and richness. We all want deep cinematic bravado, right? But what about when a movie like “Leatherheads” comes along and succeeds solely because of the charm of its top billing? What does that say about our taste? Nothing, really.

George Clooney is a lovable dude. Renée Zellweger is a great actress. When a grab-bag, goofball show like “Leatherheads” screens, we enjoy it, regardless of its inherent flaws. We bask in the warmth and charm of strong performers. Forget plot and consistency.

It’s 1925, and college football is king. Professional football is in its infancy, and looks as though it won’t make it past boyhood. Besides directing, Clooney stars as Dodge Connelly, the rascally leader of the Duluth, Minnesota Bulldogs. With an ailing team, Connelly seeks out Stanford champ and World War I hero Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski, TV’s “The Office”) in an attempt to boost attendance as well as popularity.

But hot on their tails is Lexie Littleton (Zellweger, “Cold Mountain”), a Chicago Tribune reporter. Lexie, a spunky newswoman, aims to bust both Rutherford’s war record and Connelly’s chops. The rest is easy enough. Slam together some screwball comedy, nostalgic romance and Clooney’s affinity for all things “old-timey,” and you’ve got yourself a movie. Or at least a loose outline for one.

Admittedly, “Leatherheads” is uneven at best. The screenplay has apparently been kicking around Universal for the last 16 years, and it’s no wonder executives never took the time to look at it. Plot points loosely dangle, as the film is an exercise in nothing coming full-circle. But it’s no matter – the sensations here are exuberant.

Despite the screenplay’s weaknesses, Clooney actually carries the movie by himself. Focusing on facial expressions and sight gags, Clooney almost nails the look and feel of an old Capra film. Costume gags, snappy dialogue and exaggerated eyebrows all add to that. As with William Powell in the 1936 screwball comedy “My Man Godfrey,” we’re introduced to a series of comedic archetypes (snob villain, big lug, wise mediator, drunken stooge) while relating to the everyman’s eyes of Dodge Connelly.

On the field, the hits are cracking and crass in the best way possible. Fists fly, butts are kicked and Clooney has the perpetual look of a man having the time of his life. Just before a big sneaky play, he looks up over a huddle and smirks. It’s kind of adorable and playful, and you’ll smirk too. Sounds like dumb-guy football humor? Not to worry. Zellweger holds her own as the up-and-coming reporter, and when she talks with Clooney, you’d swear this film could have come from 1943.

Stagnant shots of Clooney and Zellweger sharing a train bunk bed allude to something simple and classical. With a rat-a-tat fervor and the script’s only snap-pop writing, the two leads interact as wonderfully as Grant and Hepburn did so many years ago. Maybe that’s a bit much, but these two are awesome.

So what about the beloved John Krasinski of “The Office”? Well, he’s useless here. His drunk jokes are fun, but ultimately stolen gags. Better luck next time, John-boy.

“Leatherheads” is a wholly pleasing diversion, like what would’ve resulted had Burt Reynolds had directorial talent. Ignore its obvious flaws, and you’ll have a fun time with a truly great pair of leads.

3 out of 5 stars

At Showcase and Quality 16

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