George Clooney steps behind the camera for his third feature film as director: an old-fashioned 'screwball' comedy set in the 'roaring 1920s' and co-starring, along with Clooney, Oscar-winner Renee Zellwegger and John Krasinski of the TV show The Office. Alan Silverman has a look at Leatherheads.
It is 1925 and the rough-and-tumble game of American football played by men in leather helmets (giving the film its title) has long been popular on college campuses, but is struggling to make it as a professional sport. Veteran ...that is to say 'over-the-hill' ...player Dodge Connolly, played by Clooney, knows it will take something special to bring in the crowds for his team, the Duluth, Minnesota, Bulldogs. He thinks he's found it in John Krasinski as straight-arrow Carter Rutherford, who had left his college team to serve in World War I and came home a genuine war hero.
It works at first, but then along comes sassy newspaper reporter Lexie Littleton, played by Renee Zellwegger.
It turns out she's been assigned to get the true story behind clean-cut Carter's battlefield heroics ...and it also turns into a romantic triangle as conniving Dodge realizes he likes her.
"Over the years I've avoided doing romantic comedies, in general, because I think that they don't necessarily work anymore," Clooney explains.
George Clooney says he loves the 'screwball' comedies of the 1940s and 1950s (which he watched on TV while growing up); and he finds their witty, rapid dialogue - perfectly at home in the era of "Leatherheads" - much funnier than the formula found in most of today's film comic romances.
"We know how they're going to end: the guy is going to get the girl, in general, and if it doesn't end that way people are unsatisfied with it," he says. "So the only way they work is if you put them in a really interesting venue. If you put them in a place where that is as much the star of it as the romantic comedy is. I loved this world because I hadn't seen it, so immediately it was unique. It also forced you into a type of dialogue and a pattern of dialogue that you can not do if you're doing a contemporary film. You can't do it that quick. It is rapid-fire and you have to do it quicker if you're going to be true to that period ...and to me that's funnier."
"To walk in there and be that really quick-witted, funny, sharp, confident woman [was] an interesting exercise," adds Renee Zellwegger. The actress says she studied the films of Rosalind Russell and Jean Arthur, among others, to understand the character of Lexie; but she adds that just portraying a woman from another time frees her to enjoy it more.
"It might have to do with an appreciation for the opportunity to escape. I've always found, in my personal experience, that the further removed my reality is from that of the character, the more I enjoy it and the easier it is for me to disappear into her life," Zellwegger says. "I have a lot of fun with it. I'm sure that plays a big part in it. I have such a good time in the period pieces. I like the transformation. I have a harder time playing 'the girl' who looks a little bit like me and has clothing similar to what's in my own wardrobe than I do wearing a girdle or a corset or, in this case, little flapper dresses and hats and scarves and what-not.
John Krasinski is well-known to American audiences for the contemporary comedy show The Office and he says Carter in Leatherheads, while something of a stock character in the world of 'screwball comedy,' is a welcome change.
"It's a really different acting style. As George says, 'you're really on your front foot.' The Office is all about being as real as possible and taking your time. This is about 'punching it' and being really fast with it; but I got off easy [playing] the all-American war hero-football star. I got all the attention, so it was fine," he says.
Leatherheads also features Jonathan Pryce as a shady business manager and Stephen Root plays a perpetually inebriated sports writer. The screenplay is by Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly. The musical score, blending popular songs and soundtrack styles of the era, is by Randy Newman.