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Football shows its sensitive side

POSTED: April 20, 2008 5:02 a.m.
/Universal Studios

John Krasinski and George Clooney are football players Carter Rutherford and Jimmy "Dodge" Connelly in the quick-witted romantic comedy, "Leatherheads," set against the backdrop of America's pro football league in 1925.

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Film reviewers are the most fickle writers in existence, and they should not - under any circumstances - be trusted.

I rarely read others' reviews before I write my own. But the buzz around "Leatherheads" had me prepared for a huge disappointment. So after seeing it myself and enjoying it, I had to take a peak at some reviews. It turns out, the real problem isn't the movie, it's that critics don't know what to do with it.

Let me explain.

"Leatherheads" is set in the world of 1920s professional football, when leagues were loose affiliations, pro ball was clearly inferior to the college game and rules were seen as a menace. Jimmy "Dodge" Connelly (George Clooney) is an aging player/coach trying to extend his career and save the upstart league. He coaxes college star and war hero Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) into the league to draw more fans.

The plan works perfectly, except reporter Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger) begins cozying up to Carter as a means of exposing Carter's war hero story as a lie. Carter and Dodge are polar opposites but equally charming, and Lexie faces a believable dilemma of the heart as the two men vie for her affections.

As a sports movie, "Leatherheads" is, well, not a sports movie at all. Pre-NFL football is merely the setting here. Much like "Bull Durham," the story is a love triangle with an over-the-hill player and a young phenom battling over a smart, worldly woman. But the sport is featured even less here than it was in "Bull Durham."

Some have dubbed "Leatherheads" a screwball comedy, but there are only a few scenes with the frenetic pace and slapstick humor that we call screwball. (By the way, those are also the weakest scenes. Creating screwball comedy that is zany yet witty has always been difficult. The Marx Brothers perfected it, and few have done it well since.)

What "Leatherheads" is is a classic Hollywood romantic comedy (apologies to Andy Griffith for the phraseology). Let's face it, romantic comedies have never reached the same heights as they did when Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, William Powell and Myrna Loy starred in them.

Does "Leatherheads" stand up next to "His Girl Friday," "The Thin Man," or "The Philadelphia Story"? Of course not.

But there are a handful of scenes in "Leatherheads" that would at least fit into those great films. Clooney and Zellweger show surprising chemistry and toss off battle-of-the-sexes verbal jousting of the sort that made Grant, Hepburn and the others immortal.

No, this isn't an instant classic. But how many recent romantic comedies can offer anything similar to what I've described? Do "27 Dresses," "Because I Said So" or "Fool's Good" feature anything that might pass as intelligent or witty? Those powder puff films aren't even in the same arena.

And that brings me back around to the bone I have to pick with other reviewers. Why should Clooney and company be held to different standards than the Drew Barrymores and Hugh Grants of the world just because they're attempting something more complicated?

"Leatherheads" may be inferior to the classics, but compared to modern-day romantic comedies, this movie is a gem.

But then again, you should never trust a film reviewer.


Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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