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April 9, 2008

Movie Reviews: Leatherheads and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

long time ago, the men who ran the movie studios owned the industry.  They held their actors under strict contracts, and controlled them like commodities.  On the one hand, actors didn’t have a whole lot of say over what films they appeared in, but on the other hand, the studios protected their investments well, carefully controlling their public personae and keeping close watch on what private matters remained private.  Under this system, matinee idols like Cary Grant and Clark Gable were created, and thrived.

Way back then, there was a style of movie characterized by fast talking, wisecracking guys and dames.  Screwball comedies (as they were called) usually had fairly high-concept plots (newspaper reporter tracks spunky, wealthy heiress who’s run out on her engagement; spunky, wealthy heiress makes homeless man her butler), and writing so sharp you could cut yourself on it.  Two of my favorite movies, It Happened One Night (the first movie to sweep the five major Oscar categories), and My Man Godfrey, fall into this genre, as does the somewhat later His Girl Friday.

Nowadays, the studio system is gone, and with it much of the luster of the matinee idol (and, in a great many cases, matinees themselves).  While some movie magazines are still as fawning as the old ones (no one will accuse Us Weekly of being hard-hitting journalism, and one blogger refers to People as “Kneepads Magazine”), the Hollywood press is far less willing to keep things under its collective hat, and the paparazzi seem to know no bounds of decency.

We don’t get truly screwball comedies any more, either, and when we do, they’re rarely big budget affairs.  The last one I can remember is the vastly underrated Oscar (1991), starring that icon of light comedy, Sylvester Stallone.  Smaller-budget pictures like The Imposters (1998), with Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt also evoke that bygone era, but the genre is more or less abandoned.

Into that void come two recent movies, with varying results.

The more successful of the pair, and, perhaps significantly, the more obscure, is Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.  Set in London on the eve of World War II, Pettigrew stars one of the more underappreciated actresses of our time (as underappreciated as you can be with an Oscar, at least), Frances McDormand, and one of the hottest up-and-coming actresses, Oscrar nominee Amy Adams.

McDormand stars as Guinivere Pettigrew, a failed nanny who steals a job referral that she thinks involves caring for the child of a wealthy actress, only to find that the job is actually as personal assistant to Delysia Lafosse (Adams), a ditsy singer/actress juggling three men and a number of other rivalries.  Over the course of the day, the older woman sinking in failure gets a taste of the life of the younger woman awash in opportunity, and both learn from one another and, one is sure, both take a large step toward happiness.

Miss Pettigrew is a trifle, to be sure.  It’s fairly predictable throughout, and the ultimate fates of the two women are in doubt only for the slightest of moments.  But it’s a joy to watch two outstanding actresses at work, and both McDormand and Adams elevate the proceedings.  Lee Pace, Shirley Henderson, and Ciaran Hinds stand out in the supporting cast.  The movie won’t garner either lead another Oscar nomination (though Adams might get one for Enchanted), but it could certainly be a welcome change from the snarkiness that embodies comedies nowadays.

The larger budget Leatherheads also takes place in the past, this being the early days of professional football.  Directed by and starring (and supposedly largely re-written by) George Clooney, probably the closest thing we’ve got to a movie star of the caliber of a Gable or Grant, Leatherheads is the story of Dodge Connelly, an aging amateur football player on a team that’s about to fold due to lack of funds.  Seeing the crowds drawn by war-hero-turned-college-running-back Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski, The Office), Connelly comes up with a plan to take the game pro, save his team, and make a nice bankroll to boot.  Also on Rutherford’s trail is girl reporter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger), who intends to get to the truth behind his battlefield heroics.

Leatherheads obviously wants to be a screwball comedy, but that genre is characterized by fast talking and brisk action.  Under Clooney’s direction, the viewer gets glimmers of that, but the camera lingers on the double-takes a bit too long, and there are too many long gaps for any momentum to be sustained.  I also didn’t sense any real chemistry between Clooney and Zellweger, though the mentor/mentee relationship between Clooney and Krasinski was very good.  Perhaps a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels should be their next project.

Leatherheads isn’t a bad movie, and perhaps if it wasn’t trying so hard to be screwball (or, more accurately, if I didn’t perceive it as trying so hard to be screwball), I’d have enjoyed it more.  My parents saw it today and enjoyed it.  But all things being equal, I’d recommend saving this one for a snowy Sunday afternoon after the football season is over.

The 300 Project: 1/61


1 Comment »

  1. […] CPav wrote an interesting post today on Movie Reviews: Leatherheads and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a DayHere’s a quick excerptSeeing the crowds drawn by war-hero-turned-college-running-back Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski, The Office), Connelly comes up with a plan to take the game pro, save his team, and make a nice bankroll to boot. … […]

    Pingback by John Krasinski » Blog Archive » Movie Reviews: Leatherheads and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day — April 9, 2008 @ 10:59 pm | Reply

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