In his third directing attempt, following a solid turnout in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and an exquisite account of '50s radio politics in Good Night and Good Luck, Clooney dials his tone down to silly, bubbly levels for Leatherheads. Set in the Midwest during the early stages of professional football -- a time without superstars, large crowds, or money for that matter -- his comedy zeroes in on the Duluth Bulldogs, a struggling team with miners and mechanics in their midst who work for little more than peanuts. At the center of their team is Dodge Connelly, a veteran player with little experience outside of the field. Money was always the big issue, something that was wiping weaker teams off the map in the rather disorganized NFL. But no matter the circumstances, it remained a game about fun -- though more crowds turned out to chant the more reputable college teams on to victory.
From here, Leatherheads loosely bases its core premise on a league vitalization that occurred in the mid '20s when major college star "Red" Grange signed on to play pro ball in an effort to drum up publicity and draw in crowds. Instead of Grange, we've got Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski, The Office) as a tall, attractive WWI war hero who opts to play college ball as he builds his education towards becoming a Yale lawyer. With some conniving help from Connelly to revive his poorly-funded team, he works out a deal with agent C.C. (Johnathan Pryce, Brazil) to sign Rutherford to play with the Bulldogs in a multi-thousand dollar deal (!) -- thus igniting ticket sales, grabbing his fanbase, raising capital for advertising, the works. Leatherheads has fun with the balance between playing professional sports for stardom and recognition and for the joy of paying the bills by doing what you love. In that right, Clooney's effort teeters close to respectful satirization of the sport, though opting for a more humorous overall demeanor than direct laughs.
Leatherheads carries more similarities than differences with Penny Marshall's A League of Their Own -- a scorned sport's rise, discussions about marketability and publicity, along with an 11th Hour build to a budding rivalry involving the core team -- but it also carries a strong alignment with Ron Shelton's Bull Durham in the old veteran / new blood dynamic and just about all of the team traveling scenes. The cheeky screenwriting from Rick Reilly, journalist for Sports Illustrated, and Duncan Bradley bops and roars around in the '20s, with careful help in aesthetic craftiness from Clooney and season cinematographer Newtom Thomas Sigel to off-set a strong "been there, done that" demeanor. If there's anything thing that Clooney is masterful at, it's building an accurate and compelling atmosphere for specific time periods. From the dialogue and mannerisms down to the sneaky antics that lead character after character into speakeasies, you rarely get the sense that you're outside of this periodic bubble.
When media focus comes into the picture in the form of a hot-legged, hot-headed reporter named Lexi Littleton (Renee Zellweger, Chicago), Clooney's picture tries to steer clear of any tones that might dampen the mood too much for Leatherheads, a path that Good Night and Good Luck intentionally takes. Lexi's around to warm up to Rutherford and get the skinny on the kid wonder's wartime history, which has been rumored from a former officer of Rutherford's that his hero status might not be entirely "accurate". Zellwenger is delightful as the attractive writer, wholly sellable as a '20s sharp-tongued vixen that lures the attention of both testosterone-prone characters Connelly and Rutherford. She exhibits surprisingly chemistry with Krasinski, while mincing fiercely love-hate words back and forth with Clooney in precise lyrical rhythm. There's a scene involving sleeping situations in a train between Clooney and Zellweger that seems like it was taken straight from film history -- you know, if it were silent instead of spoken. Chemistry bubbles amid all three of these talents, creating a ménage a trios of comedic timing that rustles up more grins than laughs, but manages to do both with admirable strength.
There's where a large chunk of the enjoyment can be found in Leatherheads: in following along with that buoyant rhythm as it bobs and flails around with light-hearted smoothness in its well-tailored atmosphere. This style of comedy is a departure for Clooney, but he holds his own both the direction and his portrayal of a weathered veteran of the sport. Thematically, it gets a little hairy later on when Lexi Littleton's motives are revealed -- as it tries to juxtapose and justify the magnification placed on a bankable national hero -- but it never loses steam all the way until the clockwork-like big "finale" (read: game). It may be a story done a few times over, but Leatherheads captures the essence of the roaring '20s football scene in a delightful light. By not overbearing the audience with a swarm of direct screwball antics, Clooney impressively highlights the few shots of straight-away loony humor that he does let serve up.
Universal has sent over Leatherheads in a standard keepcase presentation adorned with perfect coverart for the style of film that it is. Thankfully, Uni seems to have moved away from the silver-topped blasé presentation on their discs for something with at least a little color -- this time, being Duluth Blue.
Leatherheads looks striking in its 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, highlighting strong usage of lavish blues and dingy oranges. Detail is incredibly strong, all the way to fibers on the wardrobe to the minor specs of mud splattered across the players. The only complaint, and it's a minor one, is that the image can get a little soft in facial features during extreme close-ups, which there are quite a few in the film. However, the strength of detail, lack of protruding edge enhancement, and the great concentrating on texture make Leatherheads one of the more radiant standard-definition images of recent memory.
Dialogue and music are the key factors to consider in this Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track, which both handle themselves aptly. Verbal clarity comes through strong at the front of the soundstage, only reaching inaudible levels a handful of times at most. The music, however, sounds phenomenal. It thumps and billows radiantly at all points of the film. Surround usage is minimal, only jumping out at times when a large crowd is present to fill the speakers with applause. Overall, it's a fine track that suits Leatherheads well. English, Spanish, and French language tracks are available, as are optional subtitle tracks for each language as well.
Commentary with Clooney and Producer Heslov:
Most commentary tracks start off with an elaborate description of their project, initial thoughts, etc. Nah, Clooney and Heslov just jump into the track and get their hands dirty. They have lots of fun, clearly showing their chemistry as filmmakers, but are also very insightful with their glimpses into shooting schedules and light focuses on digital enhancements and the like.
Eight minutes of wise splices are available here in anamorphic display. The film already runs at a hearty 114 minutes, and with this extra material it would've drastically slowed the pacing. I recognized some of the material from pieces included in the trailer. Some of the bits repeat in two of the deleted scenes, thus whittling the real deleted material to around 6 minutes.
Football's Beginning: Making of Leatherheads:
A short 6-minute featurette that features the cast and crew divulging info about the history behind the events at hand is available here. There's interview time with producer Heslov and writers Reilly and Duncan that add unique dashes to the little feature, along with some great insight into the fantastic production design that went into rendering the beautiful '20s look of the film.
No Pads, No Fear: Creating the Football Scenes:
Even longer than the general assembly featurette, this piece illustrates the conceptualization of the football games. Authenticity was the key player here, which shows by Clooney's enlistment of the historical football expert Coach T.J. Troup to design and run the plays with the guys. It also accentuates the usage of minimal padding and support gear that we know our players to embody nowadays.
George Clooney: A Leatherhead Prankster:
Unlike his other shoots when he has lambasted prank after prank on his crew, Clooney reserved it all for one solid poke at five of the key football actors for one final shot in the film. Picture excess of mud and water, and you'll get a good idea of what he was going for.
Amazingly, there's some very clever special effects at play in Leatherheads, mainly used for crowd replication and scenery embellishment. When you're concentrating on the story at hand and getting wrapped up in the time period's mood, these visual effect are next to unnoticeable. There's a fleeting idea in your mind that makes you think that the size of the crowd and the stadium seem a little too "perfect", which is actually a very strong compliment. There's a minute or so of explanation, followed by four-to-five minutes of side-by-side comparisons between untouched shots and the finalized, color-timed images with the effects integrated in.
Sports comedies can be a little dodgy in content, but Clooney's Leatherheads makes an effort to be smooth in its comedic timing and historical feel -- and succeeds. It's not a roaring comedy by any stretch of the imagination, but does offer a handful of stitch-inducing moments inside of its holistically amusing, carefully crafted demeanor. Fans of A League of Their Own's style should find something to like here, while others looking for solid performances from Zellweger and Krasinski should also be satisfied by this Recommeded offering. To say the least, though I didn't laugh as much as I'd like, I thoroughly enjoyed Leatherheads.