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

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Draft Day


Jennifer Garner looks on as Kevin Costner practices his bemused expression.

Jennifer Garner looks on as Kevin Costner practices his bemused expression.

(2014) Sports Drama (Summit) Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Frank Langella, Denis Leary, Chadwick Boseman, Sean Combs, Ellen Burstyn, Terry Crews, Arian Foster, Chi McBride, Griffin Newman, Josh Pence, Tom Welling, Sam Elliott, Wallace Langham, Kevin Dunn, Rosanna Arquette, Jim Brown, Patrick St. Esprit, Margot Danis, Jennifer McMahan. Directed by Ivan Reitman

Football isn’t just a sport in the United States; it’s virtually a religion. Fans hang on every little bit of minutiae, from coaching strategies to fantasy leagues to postgame analysis. The NFL Draft has become something of a spectacle in its own right.

Sonny Weaver Jr. (Costner), the general manager of the Cleveland Browns who are coming off a disappointing season with a suspect quarterback (Welling) and a new Coach (Leary) hired away from the Dallas Cowboys, has a lot on his mind on the new Draft day. His boss, Browns owner Anthony Molina (Langella), is disturbed by the diminishing returns of his football club and needs Weaver to make a splash at this year’s draft – or else. His girlfriend Ali (Garner) who also happens to be his salary cap specialist, announces that she’s pregnant. His dad, a former Browns coach who Sonny himself had to fire, passed away a week earlier.

He’s been vacillating between two choices in the number seven position; linebacker Vontae Mack (Boseman) from Ohio State who really wants to be a Brown and has the advantage of being a star on the local college team, and running back Ray Jennings (Foster) who is the son of Earl Jennings (Crews), a Cleveland Browns legend. Jennings the younger has the disadvantage of having a recent arrest on his resume.

Then the Seattle Seahawks come calling and they’re interested in dealing. They have the number one pick in the draft overall and there is a can’t-miss quarterback, Bo Callahan (Pence) from the University of Wisconsin up for grabs. If the Browns are willing to give them their next three first round picks, they can get themselves a quarterback being touted as a legitimate franchise player. Knowing that this is the kind of move that can save his job, Weaver pulls the trigger. This pleases his boss but not his coach who has an innate suspicion of rookie quarterbacks, nor his current quarterback who has worked hard since his injury to get into the best shape of his life.

Something about the deal doesn’t feel quite right to Sonny. Why would Seattle want to pass on a sure thing? Unless there’s something that gave them cold feet…and nobody has found anything about Callahan that doesn’t look like he’s going to be a future Hall of Famer. Sonny needs to find out what’s what and maybe do some wheeling and dealing and in the meantime the clock is ticking as the Draft approaches.

The movie was made with the blessing and full co-operation of the NFL with commissioner Roger Goodell making a cameo as himself and the real team names and logos used, not to mention cameos by ESPN analysts and sportscasters. That’s meant to give the film a sheen of legitimacy and it’s quite effective.

Costner’s career resurrection continues as he utilizes his laidback personality and bemused smile to good effect. He’s perfect for this kind of role; canny, a little bit flustered, good-hearted and trying to do the right thing. In years past Costner would have played the athlete so this is a very natural move for him.

Leary, a stand-up comic who has done a lot of dramatic roles on the small screen, does really well here as the arrogant ex-Cowboys coach, constantly flashing his championship ring to remind people that he’s a winner. His back and forth with Costner is among the movie’s high points.

The problem here is that there is too much going on. I could have done with less soap opera and more expose of how things really work in an NFL club’s front office. I suspect a lot of football fans will agree with me on that point. While the plot ends up fairly predictable, I did appreciate the idea of the wheeling and dealing that goes on behind the screens. Also a note to Reitman – overuse of graphics and fancy camera dissolves can get pretty distracting. Otherwise this is solid and entertaining spring fare guaranteed to make football fans long for the fall.

REASONS TO GO: Costner is solid as ever and has some terrific scenes with Leary.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable. Graphics get to be somewhat intrusive.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some foul language and sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sunny Weaver Jr. was originally meant to be the GM of the Buffalo Bills but the team was changed when the producers found that it would be much cheaper to film in Ohio.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Major League

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Joe