Leatherheads


Even in 1925, "hi, mom" was a thing.

Even in 1925, “hi, mom” was a thing.

(2008) Comedy (Universal) George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Root, Jack Thompson, Max Casella, Wayne Duvall, Keith Loneker, Malcolm Goodwin, Matt Bushell, Tommy Hinkley, Tim Griffin, Robert Baker, Nick Paonessa, Randy Newman, Grant Heslov, Mike O’Malley, Heather Goldenhersh. Directed by George Clooney

The NFL is the most powerful sports league in the United States. The championship game, the Super Bowl, is one of the most-watched sporting events on planet Earth. The league makes billions in advertising and sponsorship revenue, broadcasting rights fees, game attendance and merchandising. Millions follow their teams week after week during the fall. But it wasn’t always that way.

Carter Rutherford (Krasinski) is on the top of the world. The star football player for the Princeton Tigers football team, he is matinee idol handsome, a war hero, admired by millions and blessed with a bright future ahead of him. Pro football? C’mon, it’s 1925! Pro football is for miners, farmers and lumberjacks, the pay is ridiculously low, there are no rules to speak of and the crowds are ghastly.

Dodge Connelly (Clooney) is at rock bottom. The star player for the Duluth Bulldogs pro football team is trying to hold together his club by the skin of his teeth. They have to forfeit a football game because the game ball – the only one the team has – is stolen. As much as he loves the game, Connelly knows the future is bleak. He’s no longer a young man, he has almost no skills to speak of and football is all he knows. To make matters worse, the Bulldogs main sponsor is pulling out, and the team is about to fold.

Lexie Littleton (Zellweger) is on the ladder to success. A brassy dame hustling, scratching and clawing to make her way as a reporter in a man’s world, she’s given a plum assignment by her editor (Thompson); a lieutenant (Casella) in Rutherford’s unit has stepped forward, claiming that his war record is false. Littleton is to get the confidence of Rutherford, build him up with a series of puff pieces and then when she gets the dirt, print the exclusive. If she does it, there’s an editorial position for her.

Connelly hits upon the bright idea of enticing Rutherford into pro football. In order to do it, he’s going to have to fast talk Rutherford’s agent/publicist CC Frazier (Pryce) into even considering pro football. When Dodge brashly guarantees ten grand per game, Frazier and Rutherford (mostly Rutherford who loves the game and wants to play past his college years) agree to join the Bulldogs. Littleton, smelling a fish story, decides to tag along.

At first, it looks like the most brilliant idea ever. Huge crowds show up to see the college star – even at Bulldog practices. The players begin to work harder to get into shape and Rutherford suggests some “effective” plays he used at Princeton. Of course, being a natural athlete better than most of the people playing the game doesn’t hurt and the Bulldogs begin to win. Connelly does his part by playing up the new guy and making sure he’s the one to score the touchdowns and that Rutherford gets all the glory. Dodge is far more interested in getting the girl, but when she discovers the truth, everything is at risk.

A nice period piece that captures the very early days of professional football nicely although I’m sure the NFL would take issue with some of the more, ahem, sordid aspects of the Duluth Bulldogs. Krasinski does some fine work as the ultra-preppy Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford. He was still best known for his work in The Office at the time (which was still on the air) and launches his film career with a completely different character than his Office work and does a great job in the process.

Clooney does his usual solid job; he seems to have an affinity for period pieces (O Brother Where Art Thou, Goodnight and Good Luck) and he plays a wise-cracking, hard-nosed Leatherhead well. Zellweger seems born to play the brassy, sassy dame with more than a little moxie. She looks right for the flapper era, and gets the cadences right.

Clooney captures the period nicely, with speakeasies and swell hotels. While the football sequences are mostly played for laughs rather than for any kind of authenticity, they are at least staged in an entertaining manner. Randy Newman’s score is reminiscent of his work in Ragtime and Parenthood; look for his cameo in one of the bar scenes.

I’m not sure whether Clooney intended an homage to screwball comedies or to actually make one; either way, it’s a bit light on jokes to match up to the better examples of the genre. The chemistry between Zellweger and Clooney isn’t as convincing as it could be.

Leatherheads is flawed, but generally entertaining. They try for the kind of screwball comedy that made things like His Girl Friday, Sullivan’s Travels and Adam’s Rib, but don’t quite get there. With a better script and better chemistry between the leads, this could have been a memorable movie, but it’s still worthwhile on several fronts – just not really anything you’d want to sing the praises of too loudly. Definitely worth the rental at least if you don’t have anything particularly pressing that you’d like to see. It’s not a complete waste of your time and money at least.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice era re-creation. Clooney and Krasinski do fine jobs.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fails at being a true screwball comedy. Chemistry between Clooney and Zellweger not quite there.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Due to a dispute with the Writer’s Guild of America over credit on the script, George Clooney removed himself as a voting member of the Guild.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Infamous prankster Clooney is shown playing some memorable pranks on his unsuspecting cast and crew.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $41.3M on a $58M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eight Men Out
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Minions

The Company You Keep


Robert Redford explains to Jackie Evancho who the Sundance Kid was.

Robert Redford explains to Jackie Evancho who the Sundance Kid was.

(2012) Drama (Sony Classics) Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Brendan Gleeson, Anna Kendrick, Terrence Howard, Chris Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Brit Marling, Sam Elliott, Stephen Root, Jackie Evancho, Matthew Kimbrough, Andrew Airlie, Lochlyn Munro, Hiro Kanagawa, Lane Edwards, Kenneth Miller, Susan Hogan. Directed by Robert Redford.  

The 60s live with us in a number of ways – some beneficial, some not. Those who felt the need to rise up and protest the unjustness of the Vietnam war, the social inequities between poor and rich, black and white, women and men – most moved on to lives of numbing normality. Others however were forced by circumstances to disappear into the bowels of a country that despised them.

A Vermont housewife (Sarandon), typical in every way, says goodbye to her husband and grown children, gets in her car and drives South. Once in New York state, she stops to put gas in her car and is surrounded by federal agents. It turns out that she was once Sharon Solarz, a member of the radical group the Weather Underground and that she took part in a bank robbery that resulted in the death of a bank guard.

In the coming days it turned out that FBI Agent Cornelius (Howard) had lucked out – a wire tap on Billy Cusimano (Root), a pot farmer, had caught Solarz making plans to turn herself in, but the Agency – unable to locate her for almost 40 years, instead grabbed her so that they would seem to have caught her through their investigative prowess.

Realizing that Solarz needed a lawyer in the worst way, Cusimano reached out to his friend Jim Grant (Redford), an aging public interest lawyer who was getting over the death of his much younger wife the previous year, and trying to raise her daughter Isabel (Evancho) as best he can. Grant has way too much on his plate and politely refers Cusimano (and Solarz) elsewhere.

Ben Shepard (LaBeouf), a reporter for the local newspaper, is a little stung that he missed the story of the high-profile arrest that happened in his own backyard. Well, actually it’s his editor Ray Fuller (Tucci) who’s stung but the stinging is trickling down somewhat. He wants Ben to follow it up and Ben, one of those old-style reporters with an instinct for a story, starts following the Solarz arrest, utilizing a contact (Kendrick) in the FBI  This leads him to Jim, who politely brushes him off. That’s when things go sideways.

Jim takes his daughter out of school and takes a trip down to New York City. You see, it turns out that Jim used to go by the name of Nick Sloan and was one of the three outstanding fugitives from the bank robbery. He rightly presumes that his identity won’t hold up long to scrutiny and his real name will be discovered. Once that happens, he knows it’s a matter of time before overzealous FBI agents swoop in and traumatize his child.

He leaves Isabel with his real brother, Daniel (Cooper) and heads on out – but not to run. It doesn’t take long for Ben to figure out that Jim/Nick’s behavior doesn’t jive with someone trying to get away. He seems to be seeking out people involved with the case – like the investigating officer Henry Osborne (Gleeson) whose daughter Rebecca (Marling) Ben finds unusually fascinating. He’s also visiting former “fellow travelers” Donal Fitzgerald (Nolte) and Jed Lewis (Jenkins).

You see, there’s a fourth fugitive out there – Mimi Lurie (Christie) who seems to want to remain hidden. And Ben begins to suspect that Jim/Nick is seeking her out, not to warn her of events that she’s already fully aware of – but to clear his name.

Redford has always positioned himself out of the mainstream politically while remaining firmly within it, without being part of it. He excels at playing outsiders and has throughout his career. I’ve always admired his moral center, which shows clearly in his films which are generally about individuals who fall victim to pressures that range from societal (Ordinary People) to governmental (The Conspirator).

He’s a little long in the tooth for a role like this one, particularly where he is the stepfather of a tween-age girl and nothing against Evancho but while I understand the intent of the writers to show the effects of Nick Sloan’s decisions on those who love and count on him, they might have been better served to have an adult child affected instead. We never get a sense of how the absence of his daughter affects Jim/Nick, which also renders the role superfluous. If you’re gonna bring a kid into the equation, it would be nice to see the parent actually missing them.

This is in all likelihood the best cast you’re going to see, top to bottom, this year. These are some of the finest actors in Hollywood, both established (Sarandon, Christie) and up-and-coming (LaBeouf, Marling), not to mention outstanding character actors (Jenkins, Gleeson). There isn’t a false note in any performances here and they all realize they have the kind of taut story that will keep audiences on the edge of their collective seats.

The movie does take awhile to get to its destination, which plants it firmly in the “not for young people” category who prefer movies that require less of an attention span. In any case, the real target audience for this movie is pretty much aging, people who are hitting their 60s and 70s and have the patience to sit through a certain amount of exposition and remember the turbulent 60s vividly.

Redford, who has been relatively inactive as a director for decades, has now done two movies in three years. I hope that signals further activity in the director’s chair for him – I find his work to be high quality in every instance that he’s gone behind the camera and this isn’t an exception. Like Redford himself, the movie is going outside the mainstream with a limited release via Sony Classics rather than a mass release on Columbia. Oddly enough, that appeals to me somehow – although I am concerned that it won’t reach as many viewers as it might which would be a crying shame. I hope those that read this will get the message that they should mark seeing this movie down on their to-do list.

REASONS TO GO: Taut story told well. Really great cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Drags in places. Definitely a movie for people who are getting on a bit in years.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At least nine of the actors in the cast have been nominated for or won Academy Awards.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100; the reviews are pretty mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Running on Empty

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Gut