Friday, April 4, 2008

Leatherheads: Football frolic

Leatherheads (2008) • View trailer for Leatherheads
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too harshly, for mild profanity and football action
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.4.08
Buy DVD: Leatherheads • Buy Blu-Ray: Leatherheads [Blu-ray]

Although ostensibly a period romp set in the rough 'n' tumble world of nascent professional football, Leatherheads also is a perceptive parable on the importance of heroes.
Duluth Bulldogs player Dodge Connolly (George Clooney, right) persuades
ruthless businessman CC Frazier (Jonathan Pryce, center) to move golden boy
Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski) from his college ball
environment, thus giving the young man a chance to make money while
playing the game he loves. The deal is observed quietly by Chicago Tribune
reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), who knows something the
others don't ... and wonders how best to use this information.

That's a pretty weighty topic for a film that has been marketed as a frivolous romantic comedy, which is all to the good. Credit first-time screenwriters and Sports Illustrated veterans Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, who've become minor legends for the perseverance they've displayed while pitching this project for two decades (!).

Credit director and star George Clooney, as well, for recognizing the script's potential.

At first blush, Leatherheads is a retro homage to classic screwball comedies of the late 1930s and early '40s, most notably director Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday, since this new film boasts a similar romantic triangle anchored by a tough-talking female reporter — that would be Renée Zellweger's Lexie Littleton — with strong echoes of Rosalind Russell's Hildy Johnson.

Clooney's rat-a-tat verbal exchanges with Zellweger are to die for, with both performers making the most of crackerjack dialogue, raised eyebrows, pursed lips and impeccably timed double (and even triple) takes.

The story, set in 1925, begins during an average day for the Duluth Bulldogs, a typical "professional" football team composed of rough, foul-mouthed and quick-tempered players who delight in their ability to win through guile, trickery or outright cheating. Actually, "cheating" rather overstates the case, since this fledgling sport exists in a realm without rules or codes of conduct, and often is played on weed-strewn fields not entirely bereft of livestock.

The Bulldogs are more or less led by Dodge Connolly (Clooney), smart enough to see the writing on the wall: Their free-for-all games attract no more than family members and a smattering of loud, drunk fans who'd never dream of spending more than a pittance to attend.

College football, on the other hand, is an entirely different critter: The games are better regulated and held in gorgeous stadiums, and they attract thousands of well-behaved fans. That's particularly true of games that feature rising star Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski, of TV's The Office), a golden-boy WWI hero coasting on his larger-than-life feat of having forced an entire squadron of German soldiers to surrender. Single-handedly, no less.

The story sounds too good to be true, which piques the interest of Harvey (Jack Thompson), Lexie's boss at the Chicago Tribune. She departs with an inside scoop from one of Carter's former fellow soldiers, who insists things did not happen as folks have been told.

Dodge and his teammates, meanwhile, are facing the loss of job security; dwindling game attendance has prompted the team's owner to close the franchise. With only one desperate card to play, Dodge secures a meeting with Carter's manager/agent, CC Frazier (Jonathan Pryce), and persuades this ruthless businessman that piles of money are waiting to be made by the first forward-thinker who places a popular player — that would be Carter — on a pro team and forces the public to purchase tickets at a price commensurate with that popularity.

The result is win-win. But Lexie and her scandalous scoop are waiting in the wings, poised to derail Carter's career before it ever gets started.

Things become tangled when Lexie begins to sympathize with the boyishly captivating Carter, who in turn is sweet on her; Dodge, for his part, is immediately bowled over by Lexie.

The various plot complications and romantic twists unfold within a world of flappers and speakeasies, and the script doesn't miss a trick, in terms of honoring its antecedents. Dodge and Lexie accidentally — and rather scandalously — wind up sharing a train compartment, with delightful results that echo Some Like It Hot. Another sequence spoofs police officers in a manner hearkening all the way back to the Keystone Kops.

Zellweger, by now quite at home in this time period — consider her recent work in Cinderella Man and Chicago — turns Lexie into a force of nature. As they used to say in these old days, she drinks and smokes like a man, while remaining all woman. The traits themselves may seem like superficial affectations intended to mimic long-ago screwball comedy heroines, but Zellweger gives them depth. She is, by turns, self-assured and resourceful, then vulnerable and unexpectedly fragile.

Clooney also brings a bit of complexity to his initially shallow character. At first no more than a good-looking smoothie watching out for No. 1, Dodge gradually realizes that his grand scheme may come at a horrible cost: He may be too old, and too set in his ways, to survive football's transition to respectability.

It all comes down to subtle gestures, at which Clooney is a master. Dodge's best moment comes during a key game, when he glances up toward Lexie, covering the action from the press box; their eyes lock, and he sort of shrugs — fully aware that his entire universe will revolve around his next move — and tilts his head in mute resignation. The scene, although lacking dialogue, speaks volumes.

Krasinski has the toughest role, since Carter has a lot of emotional territory to cover, aside from looking authentic as a grid-iron star. He's perhaps too idealistically wholesome — more of an archetype than the other characters in this story — but, in fairness, that is the part as scripted.

Clooney (the director) assembles all these elements with considerable panache, and the result is both fun and unexpectedly poignant.

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