So as not to draw the ire of vegans, Chief Justice Michael Stailey will refer to this one as Pleatherheads.
In the beginning, the rules were simple. There weren't any.
The ambitious creativity of George Clooney and Grant Heslov pays off once again, in a period follow-up to Good Night, and Good Luck that pays tribute to the screwball comedy tradition of Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday), Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot), and Frank Capra (It Happened One Night). Timeless themes of honor, romance, and greed, set against the innocence of the 1920s, all delivered with childlike exuberance makes Leatherheads an enjoyable romp.
Facts of the Case
In the early days of professional football, few people saw it as anything more than college boys who refused to grow up rolling around in the mud. That is until college all-star and reluctant war hero Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski, The Office) is recruited by Dodge Connelly and his Duluth Bulldogs to save the sport from extinction. What his new teammates don't know is that Carter isn't quite the hero he's been built up to be, and feisty Chicago Tribune reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger, Chicago) plans to make a name for herself by revealing the truth. But when Lexie winds up falling for both men, and Carter's agent (Jonathan Pryce, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) starts double dealing, our heroic trio must work together for the good of the sport…and their own hides.
For two guys who grew up struggling to make it as working actors in the 1980s, Clooney and Heslov have truly come into their own as a producing duo. With three films in the can and another eight in development, they're making movies they want to see and having fun doing it. And while Leatherheads may not make the critics Top Ten lists at the end of the year, it's a gratifying two hour ride in a Hollywood tradition that's long been forgotten by most modern audiences.
As a fan of the classic '30s and '40s comedies, Clooney and company capture both the genre and the era beautifully. Jim Bissell's production design is top notch, the performances are effortless, and Randy Newman's score adds just the right touch to tie it all together. For a guy who only had two films under his directorial belt going into this—Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck—George has a fantastic sense of composition and a remarkable talent for surrounding himself with people who can pull off the look and feel he wants on a budget most filmmakers would balk at. From the stadium scenes, to the train shots, to the knockdown drag out fisticuffs under the street lights, each setup is postcard worth savoring. And while Clooney's the first to admit he borrowed heavily from a wealth classic films, he does so with a reverence that makes them seamless.
Working off a historical-based script by Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly and Duncan Brantley, Clooney massaged the story into a romantic comedy that hits more than it misses. The on-the-field antics may be Leatherheads' chassis, but it's the classic "I hate you, I hate you, I love you" relationship between Dodge and Lexie that drives the engine. But though the picture hums along for the first hour, that engine starts to sputter in the third act, with both the relationship and the installation of the football commissioner dragging down the pace.
You can't fault the performances though. To a person, every member of the cast sells their role. Clooney is the epitome of smooth, channelling Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra in a way that no other working actor is able to pull off. Krasinski steps outside the confines of his television success and embodies that affable Mike Connor role from The Philadelphia Story; a nice guy held captive by circumstances beyond his control. Zellweger, of whom I've never been a fan, nails it from the get go, standing toe to toe with Clooney and making their relationship believable. Sadly, the fire of that relationship peaks a bit too soon, which contributes to the film's fizzle. Jonathan Pryce is subtle and wicked as ever, as the womanizing, self-absorbed CC Frazier. Stephen Root steals each scene in which he appears, as the Bulldogs alcoholic beat writer. Each of the Bulldogs are the Bad News Bears of football, loaded with personality and spark. I only wish we could have seen more of them. And fans of Doogie Howser, M.D. will want to keep an eye out for Max Casella, who was a last minute replacement for an actor who dropped out of the production. He plays one of Carter's army buddies, whose jealousy triggers the unraveling of the big guy's success.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer holds true to its theatrical presentation. From the warmth of the fall football weekends, to the steel blue of Chicago's city streets (which were actually shot in New York), the colors are vibrant and the detail sharp. We didn't receive the Blu-ray version for review, but I can imagine that image is even more impressive. The Dolby 5.1 audio track is robust, with Randy Newman's score wrapping its arms around much of the film, maintaining that ever present period feel. Aside from the game days, not a ton of ambient effects, but what there are they make the most of.
Universal has rarely been known for their bonus feature packages, but there's more on this release than one might expect. The cornerstone is a feature commentary by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, and for those who enjoyed their dissection of Good Night, and Good Luck, there's more fun to be had here. They are good friends and play extremely well off each other, balancing insight and humor, without ever slipping into those dreaded dead zones. Four small featurettes spotlight the film's production ("Football's Beginning"), recreating football in the '20s ("No Pads, No Fear"), their use of CGI to fill the gaps ("Visual Effects Sequences"), and George's innate skill at practical jokes ("A Leatherhead Prankster"). Several deleted scenes are also included and prove just why they never left the edit bay.
There are great films and there are great nights at the movies. Good Night, and Good Luck is the former. Leatherheads is the latter. Sure, the film has it's flaws, but Clooney and Heslov have crafted a world that's fun and filled with characters that'll make you smile. Can't argue with that.
The Bulldogs win!
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Scales of Justice
• Audio commentary by Clooney and Heslov
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