Here’s how they played it. Start with some Americana about major league sports in times of transition, give us some of the money men who just don’t understand the players’ true love of the game, center the story with a leading man whose character is hardly at the peak of his game, and then split apart the central players on each team so they can play opposite each other in a final climactic game.
This one pits Leatherheads, a sleeper of a football flick from George Clooney, against a semi-classic blast of baseball, A League of Their Own, starring Tom Hanks, Jon Lovitz and a squad of women in uniform led by Geena Davis and Lori Petty. Both films have strong supporting casts, with John Krasinski and Clooney vying for Renee Zellweger’s affections on and off the gridiron, while Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell help fill out the starting lineup on the diamond.
What they also share is a setting in long-ago America, at a time when men were men, and women… well, they could be like men too. A common trick in sports movies is to dwarf the characters’ on-field competition with an even bigger societal conflict happening in the background. Here, it’s the obvious sexism that forces the Rockford Peaches to play ball in skirts while their men are away fighting World War II, and the Krasinki character’s bogus World War I heroics that help establish his team and keep the struggling league afloat.
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Leatherheads is director Clooney’s homage to the great old days when football wasn’t about money, but about men getting covered in mud and bashing their brains in. He plays wisecracking running back Dodge Connolly, who conspires to get a college hotshot, Carter Rutherford (Krasinski), recruited to his pro team only to fall in love with the equally wisecracking reporter, Lexie Littleton (Zellweger), who’s following them with an eye to writing a tough investigative story about Rutherford. If it feels like two different stories, and if you know that hijinks ensue and a rom-com triangle has to be sorted out, you’ve got the movie down cold.
Clooney has an obvious passion for old-fashioned screwball comedies, where great chemistry and snappy dialogue overshadow any story flaws. He gets points for trying to resurrect that style here, and if anyone has the chops to carry the ball for Tracy and Hepburn, Clooney and Zellweger are up to the task.
Of course, if you check local listings for, say, the past 20 years, you’ll find precious few romantic comedies that depend upon madcap antics spiraling out of control. Is it because audience tastes have changed, or filmmakers have failed to deliver the goods? That’s a burden Leatherheads must carry across the goal line to succeed.
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The Defending Champion
Back when labor peace prevailed in the world of professional sports, A League of Their Own director Penny Marshall whipped up this frothy concoction from a script by comedy superstar writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. This time, the sport in transition is baseball: With the men away in Europe and Japan, and the baseball world in turmoil, corporate moneybags Walter Harvey (played by the director’s brother, Garry Marshall) created a new league for women players. The All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League stuck around to 1954, at which point the girls had to wait for Title 9 to get them back in the game. In any case, this movie will live in history if only for the line Tom Hanks uttered that made it famous: “There’s no crying in baseball.”
Though the AAGPBL did exist for several years before disbanding, probably due to having too many initials, the story presented here of two rival sisters (Davis and Petty) who clash, split up and must face each other in the championship game is fictional. The film is bookended by scenes of the two sisters getting together with teammates at Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The long section in between is a flashback telling the story of the team’s improbable rise to baseball’s heights. Drama comes from the feuding sisters, with plenty of war-related pathos thrown in. The movie works best, though, when the great ensemble cast is allowed to have fun, through comic vignettes on the the field and in the locker room, the team’s underdog spirit shining through against long odds.
There’s no doubt that A League of Their Own is a sweeter picture, remembered fondly by almost everyone. But I just watched it again and the schmaltz factor nearly hardened my arteries. The bookend scenes with old Geena are gag-me awful, Penny Marshall’s direction is far from inspiring, and the baseball seems often incomprehensible. Yet Hanks does have that famous line…
On the other hand, Leatherheads roared into the theaters with Hollywood’s hottest actor/director/writer in charge. Well, strike the writer part — it seems that after losing a Writers Guild arbitration, Clooney went “financial core,” essentially withdrawing from the union. I’ve won and lost WGA arbitrations myself, and if George had summoned me to his estate in Italy for consultation, I would have urged him to chill. Now, having seen the film, I think he should send the WGA a thank-you card. The script is not good: confused, unfocused and sometimes just plain odd. But Clooney’s direction is competent and, even though he’s over-acting on purpose, he’s damn charming as usual.
For all they have in common, these two films feel completely different. In one of them, League, you can almost hear the studio executives guiding the project around the bases: touching family story — single; indomitable human spirit — double; society in turmoil — triple; laughs throughout — home run!
Meanwhile, Leatherheads is the anti-studio, studio movie. Could anyone but Clooney get away with making a story this silly in a dying genre with only his own considerable energy and that of his co-stars to try to pull it off? Instead of studio notes, he seems to be trying to please his pals, the Coen Brothers, who apparently had nothing to do with the movie.
A League of Their Own is defending champion because it does seem to have one thing that Leatherheads doesn’t — moments of heart-tugging emotion. But that emotion is so highly manipulated and unsubtle that it hasn’t aged well at all. Leatherheads will probably prove more durable in the rental market because it clearly doesn’t set out to be anything more than an improbable homage to the screwball comedies of yesteryear. It will still be that next year and probably will continue to hold up even after Los Angeles gains and loses another NFL team. You don’t have to run out to the theaters to see this film, but if you’re looking for a little nostalgic sports viewing, now or later, your choice is going to be Leatherheads.