As both actor and director, George Clooney clearly has a soft spot for the classics. Michael Clayton was made with '70s thriller-dramas in mind. Hipster comedies from the '60s inspired the Ocean's Eleven series. The Good German paid homage to Casablanca and The Third Man from the '40s. Behind the camera, Clooney captured the gaudiness of the '60s and '70s with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and offered a stylish tribute to Edward R. Murrow and '50s television journalism in Good Night, and Good Luck.
Leatherheads, in which Clooney stars and directs, goes back even further in time to the '20s, and is somewhat reminiscent of two other old-fashioned comedies he did with the Coen Brothers. It has some goofy, old-time slapstick reminiscent of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and like Intolerable Cruelty, it's clearly derived from screwball comedies. But as a romantic comedy set during the early days of professional football, Leatherheads is also more conventional (i.e. less unusual) than either of those films.
With a script by Sports Illustrated writers Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, Leatherheads is completely fictional but nevertheless inspired by historical fact. In the early 1920s, college football was as big as pro baseball, but professional football was considered a joke—sparsely attended free-for-alls with no established rules, running plays that relied as much on trickery as athletic ability. Teams recruited all sorts: farmers, miners, high school students, town drunks. The league itself was established as little more than an agreement for these little teams to play each other—an agreement that couldn't hold up over time, as teams succumbed to bankruptcy one by one. It wasn't until professional teams started hiring former college stars like Jim Thorpe and Red Grange that pro football began to draw an audience and turn a profit.
Which is precisely what happens with the Duluth Bulldogs in Leatherheads. Once the team goes bankrupt and disbands, veteran receiver Dodge Connolly (Clooney) decides that they could attract thousands of fans if they could only sign a deal with the right college football star. That star is Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski of TV's The Office), a clean-cut all-American receiver, as well as a prominent WWI hero with a Presidential citation for single-handedly forcing a German platoon to surrender. Dodge offers a compelling argument and strikes a deal with Carter's manager CC Frazier (a very steely Jonathan Pryce), and the ploy pays off immediately, turning the Bulldogs into an overnight sensation by drawing crowds from all around.
Except there's something about Carter's war story that doesn't quite add up—at least according to a source for the Chicago Tribune. So they assign tough reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) to root out the truth about the star player. As the Bulldogs rise to prominence, Lexie finds herself in a classic love triangle between Dodge, the aging buffoon with seemingly no redeemable qualities, and Carter, the wholesome celebrity she's trying to discredit to further her own career. Meanwhile, Dodge must come to terms with his feelings for Lexie and continuing to play football, a sport that is quickly outgrowing him as it becomes increasingly established.
Leatherheads is propelled by slapstick silliness, some of it laugh-out-loud funny, like the idea of 300-pound Big Gus as a high school student playing for the Bulldogs, or the polite brawl between Dodge and Carter. But it's just as often guilty for inducing eye-rolls—the Keystone Cops-styled chase from a speakeasy is a bit much. There are too many instances where it feels like Clooney is trying too hard to manufacture laughs, and usually ends up eliciting more chuckles and smiles than guffaws. His nods to old-fashioned comedy and classic filmmaking are also sometimes a little forced.
That said, Clooney and the screenwriters have nailed the snappy banter of a classic screwball comedy, particularly in his exchanges with Zellweger—Dodge: "I didn't come here to be insulted." Lexie: "Oh? So where do you usually go?" The one-liners are quick and clever, and the leads share a natural rapport—though I can't decide if it's awkward or an asset that the two actors used to date.
There's also something to be said for smart casting. As noted above, Clooney exudes a certain degree of Golden Age charm. If he doesn't quite rank with Clark Gable or Cary Grant, then at least he translates their classiness to 21st century century cinema—despite a willingness to compromise his suaveness with the goofy facial expressions and physical comedy demonstrated in O Brother. Zellweger, of course, is no stranger to the Roaring Twenties and Depression era, with memorable turns in Chicago and CinderellaMan. Now with a sassy performance reminiscent of His Girl Friday, she seems perfectly suited for this period of American history. Really, the acting is inspired throughout, from Krasinski's boy-scout appeal as Carter to Pryce's strictly business performance as Frazier, not to mention Peter Gerety in a small part as the no-nonsense football commissioner.
Clooney also shines as a director, instilling some laughs just in the clever ways he frames a shot to set up a gag. The era is captured beautifully through newspaper headlines, radio broadcasts, newsreel footage, and a wonderful jazz score by the great Randy Newman. That's all complimented by the cinematography, which bathes the visuals with golden warmth appropriate to both football season and classic filmmaking.
The movie doesn't take itself too seriously, and you're best advised not to either. The big game of the finale ends with a play which, though thematically appropriate, works better in a screwball comedy than a football film. For that matter, the football antics become outpaced by the fast dialogue of the romantic triangle and the film's overall feel as a period piece. And though everyone is likeable, they're also either conniving or else have a sketchy background, meaning this isn't as much a movie where you root for a single character as much as you root for everything to work out for the best, whatever that may be—sort of like a musical.
As a tribute to old movies, Clooney's film juggles with too many elements—sports, romance, slapstick, Capra-esque cinema—and doesn't do full justice to any of them. Yet combined together with a strong cast, the film is brimming with nostalgia and charm, and thus most likely to connect with older audiences than younger. Leatherheads is not innovative comedy by any means, but any film that has you leaving the theater feeling better than when you came in has done its job well enough.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- What role did rules play in shaping professional football? How did they help establish the sport? How did they hurt it? Why are rules necessary but imperfect? Are there parallels to be drawn here with rules in everyday living, such as the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law?
- Leatherheads has two central characters driven to do whatever it takes to do what they love. Is Dodge honorable in his pursuit to establish professional football? Is Lexie honorable in her pursuit of a hot story (and a position as assistant editor)? How are these two characters alike in their pursuits? How are they different?
- Do you think Lexie was justified in running Carter's story in the newspaper? Was Carter reckless in sharing his story with a reporter? Wasn't Lexie just doing her job, trying to get ahead in a man's world? Or was there an ethical breach of trust on her part?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Though rated PG-13 for brief strong language, the profanity in Leatherheads is neither brief (approximately 20 bad words, including misuse of the Lord's name) nor particularly strong (no f-bombs). There's also some mild sexual innuendo, and characters are seen drinking in Prohibition-era speakeasies. Despite the violence associated with some football games and barroom brawls, it's all handled as slapstick—some black eyes, but no blood. Aside from the language, Leatherheads is fairly wholesome, reminiscent of comedies from the Golden Age of Movies.
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