For his third directorial outing, George Clooney has chosen to lift a page or two from his friends Steven Soderbergh and the Coen brothers by shifting gears from serious drama ('Good Night, and Good Luck') to a light-hearted comedy in the old-fashioned screwball mold. His period sports picture 'Leatherheads' allows Clooney the actor to indulge in the good-natured goofball charm he's exploited in films like 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' and 'Intolerable Cruelty' while Clooney the director hones the breezy tone that worked so well for him in the 'Ocean's' series. Unfortunately, Clooney the outspoken political activist can't help getting a few digs in before the end as well, and that comes close to derailing those other positive aspects.
Set in 1925, 'Leatherheads' gives us a look at the wild and woolly early days of professional football, a time when the teams wore little padding and played by few rules. Dirty tricks were aplenty, brawling was common, and rowdy fun was had by all. Clooney stars as Dodge Connelly, captain of the Duluth Bulldogs, an aging boy-man who just wants to have a good time on the field and spare his buddies from a life in the coal mines and factory floors. When the team's finances fall apart, Connelly cooks up a scheme to recruit the clean-cut, all-American college champ and war hero Carter "The Bullet" Rutherford (John Krasinski of 'The Office') to be their new star player and lure back the paying crowds. Getting in his way is Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), a fast-talking reporter dame from the big city on a mission to debunk the legend of Rutherford's war service (the first World War, mind you), during which he supposedly captured an entire German regiment single-handedly. The thing is, Carter is such a charming and likeable fellow that Lexie can't bring herself to scandalize his reputation. Meanwhile, Dodge has taken an instant liking to Lexie himself. Just as this little love triangle starts brewing, government intervention threatens to turn pro football upside down, legitimizing it with new rules that drain the fun right out of the sport.
Parts of the film are more than a little reminiscent of 'Bull Durham', the template for almost all romantic comedies set against a sports backdrop. That's not a bad thing by any means. Clooney also draws from classic screwball comedies, especially 'His Girl Friday'. In at least its first half, the picture has a light tone and a jaunty pace. The star is obviously having a good time goofing around with the material. Krasinski proves to have strong movie star charisma. Zellweger does fine with the rat-a-tat-tat banter and has decent chemistry with Clooney, but is at her most pinch-faced and often looks out of place. It's hard to imagine that these two men would really fall for her.
Things start to go south in the second half, where most of the comedy flies out the window. The story turns disappointingly solemn after Lexie's article sparks a political firestorm and a new football commissioner is appointed to regulate the sport. The message of the piece overwhelms the entertainment. Oddly, the director seems to be arguing in favor of deregulation, which is a surprising stance for such a staunch Democrat.
Thankfully, the movie never completely capsizes, and even picks back up again by the end. 'Leatherheads' is the weakest so far of Clooney's films as director and, at just under two hours, runs a little too long for the subject to justify, but generates enough good will that it's hard to dislike.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Leatherheads' comes to Blu-ray from Universal Studios Home Entertainment. Unlike other studios, Universal has not foisted any obnoxious promos or trailers at the start of the disc. On the other hand, they've chosen to dump most of the bonus features available on their simultaneous DVD edition.
Without going overboard about it, 'Leatherheads' was shot to vaguely resemble photographic styles of movies from the 1920s to 1940s. Although it was a color production, the film has a mild patina of sepia tones and a faintly soft glow. Neither trait is heavy-handed or at all objectionable. The Blu-ray's 1080p/VC-1 transfer is framed at the original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio and has an excellent representation of textures and fine-object detail. Colors, while not "leap off the screen" vivid, are clean and accurate. Black levels are a little shallow (again intentionally), but shadow detail is very good and the image has a nice sense of three-dimensional depth.
Despite the fact that Universal has squeezed the movie onto a single-layer disc, I spotted no unwanted compression or edge ringing artifacts. I also saw almost no grain, which will please some viewers and anger others. This is a very clean picture, and I suppose that does work against the old-timey look a little bit. I'm sure the conspiracy theorists will accuse Universal of DNR'ing the transfer. I don't know whether that's the case or whether Clooney just shot the movie on fine-grained film stock. What I can say is that the image never looks filtered or mushy, and has none of the other tell-tale signs of excessive Digital Noise Reduction. The disc has plenty of High Definition detail and a pleasing film-like appearance. As far as I'm concerned, it looks terrific.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is also a winner. Right off the bat, the jazzy score is crisp, clean, and loud, with a satisfying amount of thumping bass. The mix doesn't put much emphasis on sound effects, and surround usage is very limited, mostly reserved for musical bleed. However, dialogue is always perfectly clear and the swinging music has great warmth and fidelity.
The 'Leatherheads' DVD isn't quite what I would describe as packed with bonus features, but it has a few items of note. Frustratingly, only one standard supplement has been carried over to the Blu-ray directly.
For the most part, 'Leatherheads' is an enjoyably goofy sports comedy with some appealing leads and likeable humor. It falters a bit in the second half, but not enough to entirely ruin the fun. The Blu-ray has excellent picture and sound, and earns a solid recommendation.