There are a great many things that are difficult to meaningfully critique in this world. The Mona Lisa, for example, is not all that great. That’s a tricky idea to get anywhere with though, because people have been calling it the greatest painting in the world since before it was even finished. It is just as difficult to relevantly praise it. Whether it’s a novel like The Great Gatsby, or a film like Casablanca, some things just have too much momentum behind them. Since reviews of The Great Gatsby are not widely making it to the public eye these days, this momentum only comes up when something new has to face a comparison to one of these behemoths. When the comparison is by design, the critic’s job is a tough one.
Leatherheads is set in the 20s, and tackles a fairly unique plot: football. Football as it was in the 20s. Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski of The Office fame) is the biggest star in college football, and a war hero to boot. Dodge Connelly (George Clooney) is an aging professional player. College football is probably (if you run the statistical algorithm) more popular than pro football today. Pro football is on life support, and losing the battle in a hurry. Society is rather opposed to professional football, because after college you’re supposed to get a job like a respectable person, and pro football is seen as barely a step up from carnivals. Pro teams are dropping like flies, and when the money runs out for Dodge’s own Duluth Bulldogs, he takes one last shot at saving the whole concept of pro football. He tries to get national hero Rutherford to suit up. In real world terms, Rutherford is sort of Red Grange.
Thrown into the mix is Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger), a reporter who has Rutherford’s story thrown at her. It seems he might not be quite the war hero all the papers say he is. Lexie is straight out of most movies starring Cary Grant, but here the focus is mainly His Girl Friday’s Rosalind Russell. She spars with Dodge and doesn’t spar with Carter in just the way we’d expect, and the two men ruffle their feathers at her in their individual ways.
Leatherheads is a movie that almost demands people mention any number of stars and films from anywhere near 1940. There is a real problem with this, and it is a similar situation to the one we found ourselves in with Zellweger’s other update project, Down With Love. It’s hard to find a review of that movie without an emphasis on the idea, if not the actual words, “It’s no Pillow Talk.” The trick with that is that Pillow Talk is really no Pillow Talk either, and His Girl Friday is no His Girl Friday. Films from the past exist in wildly different worlds, and had goals that rarely ventured beyond “a little bit of entertainment.” The Marx Brothers, as just one example from the era Leatherheads is working, had a solid gold recipe for success, but it was a recipe that included upwards of fifteen straight minutes watching a guy play the piano. You can’t update that, and you can’t straightforwardly update screwball rom-com for just the same reason – the people you’d be talking to don’t exist anymore.
Leatherheads builds this conversation into itself to a degree with two of its main discussions. From one side of the film, times are changing. Audiences are changing, and “legitimizing” football is going to make it into something different, but something it may need to become in order to survive. The days of crazy plays are dwindling, and with them go a lot of the pure, simple fun. No more pig-in-a-pokes, or other antics. Lots of rules, and etiquette, and things that are generally a bit less wild and free. Near the end of the film, Dodge asks his team if they’re having fun, and we’re with him.
On the other side of the film, Carter Rutherford did something pretty interesting during the war, but not something actually heroic. As he says himself, the story just got a little better every time someone told it. Before long, there was no way to tell anyone he wasn’t the world’s greatest thing if he’d wanted to. The momentum had taken over completely. You’ve got to remember that just about everyone involved with Casablanca wanted to wash their hands of it until it came out and everyone told them how great it was. They were right too. It’s just not that great.
Leatherheads tries a bit too hard, and runs too long, but I admit to being really entertained. I’m a critic who believes you have to put a movie in its possible world, and judge it from there. What’s it trying to do? Is that a legitimate, worthy effort? How good is it possible for it to be? Leatherheads is in a sense its own main character. It’s getting older, but it loves the game. It revels in the idea that it basically plays a game as a job, but times are changing, becoming more serious, and it has to figure out where it fits in the new world.
In the end, I have to give Leatherheads a strong endorsement. It does what it set out to do surprisingly well, and I find it a worthy effort. George Clooney outdoes himself as both actor and director, and the rest of the cast is nearly flawless. Zellweger is as miscast as she was in Down With Love, but to be fair, she’s the best we’ve got these days. No one fits this role well anymore, because that’s not really how we make stars now. A woman who can be strong, but really sexy, and deliver snappy comebacks that flow naturally is not a character in high demand. The best I can come up with is that Scarlett Johansson might pull it off in about ten years.
Sometimes a bit of fun is just a bit of fun. Sometimes the icons of comparison are really just stories that ran away with themselves. Let’s try to maintain a real perspective here. Talking about a film, sub-genre, or indeed entire decade that is hard to describe without using the word “screwball” as though it has achieved some pinnacle of excellence is really to start the whole game with misguided rules, and too many of them. Leatherheads is far from a great movie, but it is more entertaining than at least 80% of all the movies I’ve ever seen.
The Leatherheads disc comes about as loaded as you’re likely to get without moving to a 2-disc set. Apart from getting your money’s worth in quantity, this is a release that delivers quality as well. There are about nine minutes of deleted scenes, and a four minute film of one of George Clooney’s trademark pranks to start things off. The deleted scenes are even the kind that represent real decisions about how the final product will ultimately tell its story. The real sell are the behind-the-scenes features and the commentary track.
There is a quick “Making of,” which manages a lot of interesting detail in only six minutes. “No Pads, No Fear: Creating the Rowdy Football Scenes,” is a nice look at how the game was played back in the day, and how that gets translated into film. Basically, there’s virtually no padding, and these people do have to smack into each other a bit. This is one of the better looks behind a film I’ve seen in a while, and the surprising thing is that I’ve seen many more than twice as long. From trying to match the look and feel of vintage football footage, to keeping a bunch of guys who are tiny by today’s football standards uninjured, we get a look at the whole world of the film’s development. We also get a great visual effects reel which gives us a split-screen showing the footage that was shot up against the digital additions of the final film version.
The real star of the DVD release is the commentary track which is provided by George Clooney and producer Grant Heslov. Heslov and Clooney are the pair behind Smoke House Productions, of this film, and they clearly know what they’re talking about. It’s an interesting dynamic they create here, and Clooney manages to relate a very savvy perspective about the creation of something he was involved with on so many levels. Considering the lightness of the film, and its length, the pair do a remarkable job of keeping viewers engaged in their discussion.
Overall, this is a very good package. There’s a good dose of extras to suit everyone from the casual viewer to those interested in the history behind the story. The transfer is even above par, melding the largely digitized feature into something that looks very polished on even your larger screens.