Monday, September 29, 2008

Find of the Week: LEATHERHEADS

Post-midway through this movie, as a soldier, just after a rousing bar fight, sang "Over There," it fully hit me. I turned to my companion and whispered, "This is really good!" He nodded affirmatively. Why were we so surprised? Was it the dismissive, barely-awake reviews? The fact that LEATHERHEADS bombed at the box-office? That it was perceived as just a "sports" film? Whatever: the fact is that this third directorial outing by George Clooney is every bit as good as his first two: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck.)

Graceful and leisurely, alternately funny and moving without so much as an unnecessary push, the film makes it appear that Clooney is as effortlessly truthful a director as he is an actor. He gets so much right. And his writers, Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, do the same. Together they give their story of professional sports teams in the 1920s an unusual twist: There are no real heroes and no real villains. Instead, the filmmakers bestow a sense of graciousness on one and all, even the somewhat smarmy promoter/investor played by Jonathan Pryce. I believe this achievement comes from their understanding of human nature in a manner more complete than that of many moviemakers. They let us see the direction in which their characters are moving and what each of them wants and needs. This understanding makes the film richer and more humane than most comedies, even -- perhaps especially -- with the "dirty tricks" that make up the Clooney character's repertoire. These are necessary, one feels, against the odds wielded by the money-and-power people.

Clooney and Renée Zellweger work awfully well together; there's a lot of smart dialog here, tartly delivered. And the supporting cast, from John Krasinki to Jack Thompson, Mr. Pryce and Marian Seldes, is more than up to snuff. Production design, cinematography, editing -- all of it is first-rate. I'm flummoxed as to why this film was not more successful amongst intelligent audiences (it will most likely not appeal to "Rocky" fans). Perhaps critics and public were primed for some political agenda from the actor/director. Instead, he's given us a sweet and subtle piece of nostalgia without rose-colored glasses. Maybe the lack of those glasses did "Leatherheads" in. But if you sit back, relax -- and don't put your brain on hold -- I predict you'll have a very good time.

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