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Leatherheads (2008) Print E-mail
Friday, 04 April 2008
Don't be misled by the trailers. “Leatherheads” is not a raucous slapstick comedy about old time professional football. It periodically dips its toe into those muddy waters, but overall it's a screwball romantic comedy in classic form. The movie is old-fashioned in the best possible way; it's funny, it has sharp romantic banter (never quite as sharp as it should be, however) and attractive leads. It also has something even the classic screwball comedies of the 1930s didn't try for: a great deal of warmth and elements of nostalgia. You won't leave the theater thinking you've seen a latter-day masterpiece, but this movie is likely to stick with you, popping up in your memory over successive weeks. It's almost, but alas not quite, the kind of movie that people don't just like, they fall in love with.

Coonley plays Dodge Connelly, head player of the Duluth Bulldogs. He's not quite over the hill, but the only course left now is downhill. And it seems to be the same for pro football in 1925, the year the movie begins. Sure, people turn out in the thousands to see great college players, like Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford (John Krasinksi), who was also a hero of World War I. But the bleachers for the pro football teams-mostly from industrial towns in the Midwest-have just a scattering of football fans.

Sharp-witted girl reporter-that's what they were called then-Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) is assigned by the editor (Jack Thompson) of her Chicago paper to track down the truth behind what a serviceman has just told them: Rutherford didn't really earn the Medal of Honor he's been awarded. It's unusual for a female reporter to tackle sports news, but Lexie's nothing if not game. And besides, she wants that assistant editor job her boss dangles before her.

She tracks Carter down; he's being managed by CC Frazier (Jonathan Pryce), a wily trader who's none too honest. Meanwhile, Dodge has come up with a bright idea-the very idea, in fact, that changed pro football almost overnight from a piddling, near-defunct sports venture into a multimillion dollar industry: he wants to get Carter to sign up with the Duluth team. Lexie and Dodge banter playfully in the hotel where she's come to meet Carter; it's clever stuff, very bright and sassy. While it's true that the charming, amusing Clooney could probably strike romantic sparks with a horseshoe crab, he and Zellweger make the screen sizzle when they're trading insults.

Carter, a genial, unsophisticated young man, happily signs up with the Bulldogs, and Lexie tags along, following their season from town to town. This gives time for her and Carter to also be attracted to one another, which annoys Dodge. But what really irks him in a wry way is that Carter DOES pull in football fans by the thousands, and gives them what they came for: great football. He's clearly a better player than Dodge, also clearly more up to date-Dodge doesn't like to face the fact that football actually has rules. Conflicts arise.
Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly's script for “Leatherheads” has been hanging around Hollywood for 17 years. It took the involvement of Clooney, who rewrote the film as a screwball comedy (but unfortunately was denied screen credit), to get the project off the ground. It's easy to see that the genial, savvy Clooney studied classic romantic comedies-you could imagine a movie very like this starring, say, Cary Grant in Clooney's role, Rosalind Russell or Carole Lombard as the female lead, and James Stewart or William Holden as the younger man. Clooney was shooting for the ambiance of films directed by the likes of Howard Hawks, George Cukor, Leo McCarey and even Preston Sturges-and he comes pretty close to hitting that mark.

But the film is hampered by the football scenes. They're presented as something close to Keystone Kops-like slapstick comedy, with balls bonking beans, feet kicking crotches and so forth. Mud comes into play. These scenes don't work as well as the romantic comedy material-and there is either too many of them or not enough. We don't get to know any players other than Clooney; they're trotted out for a scene or two-there's an early sequence in which they reluctantly go back to their “regular” jobs (factory worker, miner, farmer, etc.)-but we never get to know them. They're just guys in skimpy protective gear, including those distinctive, and probably useless, leather helmets. These comedy scenes aren't timed very well-Clooney does better with dialogue scenes, particularly when he's in them-nor are they as funny as intended. The newly-appointed federal football commissioner (Peter Gerety) introduces an unexpectedly serious element in the 11th hour.

The movie really belongs to the leads. We know that Dodge and Lexie will end up with one another, no matter how much they squabble, no matter how much she's attracted to Carter. And we know Carter will end up covered in glory-and that Dodge won't resent it. He knows his football days are nearly over, adding a touch of melancholy to the film. Overall, as mentioned earlier, it's unexpectedly warm, mostly due to Clooney himself. “Leatherheads” may be only intermittently funny, but it's consistently warm, consistently interesting.

And it has three fine leads. Now that the previous batch-Nicholson, Pacino, Eastwood, etc.-have aged out of the Movie Star slot, Clooney has slid into it gracefully. There have been few actors who are as likeable on and off screen as George Clooney-James Garner and James Stewart both come to mind. In interviews, he's intelligent, amusing and self-effacing, a delight to chat with. But he's also a good writer and an able director; he can't seem to do anything entirely wrong. He may have cast himself as the lead in this movie he co-wrote, co-produced and directed, but he was the right choice.

Renée Zellweger is also perfect in her role, and she looks great in the period costuming and cloche hats. It's easy to believe her as a sharp-tongue girl reporter, always one wisecrack ahead of the guys. John Krasinski, from “The Office,” is also ideal as the honest, unsophisticated-but not naïve-young guy from the Midwest. As with William Holden, it's easy to believe that there are some shadows in his past.

The brown-and-gold-toned cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel is as comfortably old-fashioned as the movie itself. The production design by James D. Bissell and the costumes by Louise Frogley are true to the period but lack the over-fussy tone that some period movies contain. Randy Newman does the lively score (and appears briefly as a piano player), using period music occasionally (a montage is accompanied by Al Jolson belting out a peppy “Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye”), composing appropriate melodies for the rest.

“Leatherheads” is a relaxed but lively example of the kind of movie Hollywood doesn't do any more-but here they have. The preview screening left many in the audience puzzled, perhaps explaining why there was no applause. But it's also true that the movie doesn't fully succeed on its own terms; it's a friendly, likeable movie that could have been a bit more. But this kind of film is so rare today that it's a pleasure to see one that comes this close to a touchdown.

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