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Leatherheads of the North:
The True Story of Ernie Nevers & the Duluth Eskimos
by Chuck Frederick
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
The principle that seems to be guiding George Clooney's choice of films to be in and/or direct is, "make 'em laugh or make 'em think." This madcap period comedy on the birth of football as a profession with rules and a commissioner, written by Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, is of the former genus. Clooney is going for the funnybone and, in a wildly different setting than his "Ocean's" series, takes a not-unsimilar tone of wry understatement and in-jokesterism. The amusement level, however, doesn't make for a sold out arena.
It was a time when what football there was was provided by college teams. attendance was desultory and provided barely enough gate receipts to cover the costs. To say the teams were challenged to afford bare necessitities is put into clear focus when the football itself, during a game team leader Dodge Connolly (George Clooney) and his Duluth Bulldogs, were winning, is stolen. Left without a ball, the game is fortfeited in favor to the opposition. The team only had one ball and the losing team knew it.
As for rules in 1925, they were hard to come by. More or less made up by the agreements of the moment, one of them was that the home team must provide the ball. But, the embarrassment of losing a game for want of a ball is only a symptom of a larger problem. Little by little The Bulldogs can't find teams to play because of bankruptcies, and it isn't long before Dodge and his boys aren't able to hang on by their helmet straps.
After going through the pain of disbanding the team, Dodge agonizes over how football could be ressurected as a professional sport. As much entrepreneur as quarterback, he becomes aware of the return of multi-decorated soldier Carter Rutherford from the battlefields of the First World War (though the dates don't exactly match). The headlines glow with the exploits of a national hero, but what has Dodge's nerve endings vibrating is that Rutherford was a college sensation at football. He didn't get the monicker "The Bullet" for nothing.
Not even fuly realizing what he's about to set in motion, Dodge offers Rutherford $5,000 a game to play for the Bulldogs, a fortune in 2008 dollars, to be paid from the receipts. Carter's oily, opportunistic agent (Jonathan Pryce) whose commissions are a disgrace, sees the potentials for lining his pockets and goes for it. The news hits. The first game is announced. One newspaper editor named Harvey (Jack Thompson) assigns his ace reporter, pretty Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger) to interview Carter either to pump up his story or deflate the myth. Either way, it'll sell newspapers.
How much of this is based on history is a question, but some mangling is apparent. One fascinating insight that director Clooney captures well is the wide-ranging interest of fans who show up in huge numbers before the game, just to watch warm-up and team practice. Dodge is onto something. He has tapped into a very big destiny for his sport and, perhaps more to the point, the kind of hero-worship that translates into very big business. With this, the future is set, and we recognize the demons of avarice and greed snorting at the gate.
Lexie's interest in his leading player (who is by now easily running off with nothing but wins for the team) bothers Dodge, who wouldn't want to have his MVP compromised. But in a compromise of his own feelings, he's soon realizing that the threat also stems from his growing attraction to the spunky lady.
Attempts to make this emotional triangle pay off as a sport movie and a 30's style romantic farce leads to some coyness and mirth but also a great deal of mixed messages, a running stream of teases and inconclusive romantic play. And, then, Carter confesses his secret truth to lexie and all bets are off with one or two new ones on.
To capture the look and feel of the period as well as the grit of the field and the soft-textured fashions of the era, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel gives his well-lit footage a wash of sentient amber that warms the premises. Randy Newman turns in a peppy score with strains of honkie-tonk and mischief and, even, appears in a barroom fight scene as the house pianist, a nice, unexpected touch that fits the Clooney harmonics.
Clooney ("Ocean's Thirteen," "Good Night, and Good Luck" has no trouble conveying his leadership on the field and leading man magnetism in the clutches. Zeggweller pulls out some of her pouty, come-on tricks from yesteryear's "Chicago." Krasinski is a role-fulfilling choice for his looks and physical mettle. Jack Thompson, ("'Breaker' Morant," "The Good German") hewing to the snappy verbal rhythms of screwball comedy almost makes himself unidentifiable, demonstrating what acting range is. Supporting players provide much coloration of attendant characters. They are top-notch and up to the scrimmage line.
The problems for the pic are twofold: the shifting nature of the triangular romance subplot that, like an indecisive game, tires you instead of raising you to your feet; and the long stretch of 113 minutes, a 15 minute clipping of which would have imposed more discipline to the flow of historical and romantic developments, making for a more crowd-pleasing diversion. While it may not score on all points, however, there's a pleasantness in the subject and, for sure, in the cast, which pulls it off with devotion and a significant amount of pizzazz.
~~ Jules Brenner