Leatherheads/Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

starring George Clooney, Renée Zellweger & John Krasinski
written by Duncan Brantley & Rick Reilly and directed by George Clooney
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.

The year is 1925, and Dodge Connelly (Clooney), fast-talking Minnesotan, is struggling to hold the fledgling Duluth Bulldogs, and the entire pro football league, together. What he needs is a star, and he finds one in Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford (Krasinski), a war hero who plays football for Princeton. With Rutherford on his team, and big-city reporter Lexie Littleton (Zellweger) in tow, pro football seems destined to really take off, but not without some hilarious, zany and unexpected twists along the way.

starring Amy Adams & Frances McDormand
written by David Magee & Simon Beaufoy and directed by Bharat Nalluri
Rated PG-13 for some partial nudity and innuendo.

Guinevere Pettigrew (McDormand) is an incompetent governess struggling to hold down a job in late-1930s London. Delysia Lafosse (Adams) is an aspiring American actress and singer who is experiencing a bit of boy trouble. She is living in a flat belonging to the owner of the nightclub where she sings, sleeping with the producer of a West End musical and staving off proposals of marriage from the nightclub’s pianist. When Miss Pettigrew steals another woman’s assignment from the employment agency, the two women are thrown together for one very wild day.

Leatherheads and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day are both affectionate throwbacks to the screwball comedies of the early talkie era, the late 1920s-early 1940s. Watching them brings to mind titles like My Man Godfrey, His Girl Friday, The Lady Eve, Bringing Up Baby and The Awful Truth. As such, there are two ways to look at each film: in terms of how it succeeds as an homage, and in terms of how it succeeds as a movie.

Leatherheads features a lot of the rapid-fire dialogue and pointed barbs of witticism flying between the main characters. Clooney, the nearest approximation to Cary Grant in existence, has already proved himself to be a master of this art. Part of the reason he succeeds so thoroughly, I think, is that Clooney, like Grant before him, is equally good at playing drama and comedy, and can spin on a dime between the two. Zellweger proves to be an excellent foil, and she already showed with 2002’s Chicago that she can blend seamlessly into the background of the 1920s. Krasinski brings the same “everyman” brand of guileless charm to this role that he has displayed on television’s The Office for a few years now. He is a likable chump with a crooked smile in the vein of a young Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper.

The movie evokes both its period and the films that were made during it without belaboring them, which allows it to surprise and delight all the more. Leatherheads is just as comfortable with sight gags and slapstick as it is with wordplay, and knowledge of its sources, while not necessary, lays another rich layer of humor onto the proceedings (think references to the Keystone Cops and Sergeant York). Somewhere along the way, the movie tosses one too many balls in the air for it to juggle comfortably, and sags a bit as a result. The script could probably have used some general tightening up. However, it rallies for the big finale in a totally satisfying way.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is reminiscent of the Depression-era rags-to-riches stories, made to lift audiences’ spirits while they forgot their own troubles for a few hours. Adams and McDormand are both fantastic, as always, and they have an undeniable chemistry together. With all of the action crammed into a single day, the script is much more compact than that of Leatherheads (and some twenty minutes shorter, as well), and is in no danger of dragging at any point. The story suffers from one or two minor improbabilities, but keeps things moving too fast to trouble us.

Two things you would probably not find in a light-hearted comedy of the late-1930s are the air raid drill scene (this being the lead-up to the Second World War) and one or two hints that Europe, on the eve of re-initiating global conflict, had learned nothing from the First World War. The former would simply be something audiences seeking frivolous entertainment would find discomforting, while the latter would probably have come across as highly unpatriotic. However, there certainly would have been people thinking about these things. Interestingly, Leatherheads, though it is set closer to the event, has a far rosier view (if it can be called that) of “the Great War.” That seems only natural, though, as it is set in the United States, while Miss Pettigrew is in Britain where, for instance, one character lost virtually every friend he had from his school days.

In any case, Miss Pettigrew does not dwell for long on such somber thoughts. They make their point, then move on, leaving us to ponder their implications or leave them aside while we laugh at the antics of the characters on the screen. Still, hours later, those expressions of impending tragedy are what remain in my mind, even more than the wild hilarity swirling around them. The movie can be a pleasant evening’s entertainment, certainly. At least, I thought so. However, it is difficult to look back from this side of September 1st, 1939, and not think about the tribulations that likely lie ahead of Miss Pettigrew and her friends and loved ones.

As I watched Leatherheads and Miss Pettigrew, I couldn’t help but wonder how would these pieces of period homage would be seen by moviegoers of the time. I wonder if, in sixty or seventy years, filmmakers will attempt a comedy or two in the “style” of the ’90s and ’00s. What would that even look like from the perspective of people who won’t be born for another few decades? What sorts of seminal events will serve as the lens through which these people of the future view us? All such questions aside, though, if you’re a fan of old-style comedy, this is a great week to go the movies. I heartily recommend the double-feature approach. If you enjoy one, you will certainly appreciate the other as well.

~ by Jared on April 12, 2008.

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