by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I wanted to go to the library for what looked like an interesting movie: Leaf, a 2008 film about the former San Diego Chargers (and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Dallas Cowboys, and Seattle Seahawks) quarterback Ryan Leaf. What I hadn’t realized was that the San Diego Union-Tribune had run a big story about it on the front page of its sports section the day before, so about 200 people turned out to see it. They were expecting a personal appearance by the film’s director, Tim Carr — who also wrote it and starred as Ryan Leaf -— but before the film began library staffer Lynn Whitehouse (whom Charles and I know well by now!) announced that the real Ryan Leaf had just lost his latest job and therefore Carr was unable to make it because he was reworking the ending of his film, so what future audiences would see would not be what we saw at the end.
Leaf (the movie) turned out to be — well, not really a documentary since virtually everybody in it was played by an actor (only a few of the figures in Leaf’s life, notably Union-Tribune sportswriter Jay Posner — whom Leaf swore at in the clubhouse after an early defeat and thus alerted San Diego’s media and fans that this was a problem child — appear as themselves), and not really a “mockumentary” either since its intent wasn’t to make fun of Leaf or America’s football cult in general (though both, especially the latter, deserve satire) but to present him seriously and even semi-sympathetically. Leaf is a frustrating movie because its impoverished production budget shows — we don’t get to see any footage of Ryan Leaf in action (the costs of either licensing the actual clips from NFL Films or staging pro football games were way beyond the kind of money Carr and his company, “Parking Lot Films,” had available), many of the “actors” are barely competent, and the production is pretty cheap (much of it looks like it was shot on video with available light, which was probably the case) — and because it’s clear writer Carr is as clueless as to What Made Ryan Run (in both senses of the last word!) as the rest of us, though as Leaf Carr is just right: a perpetually perplexed jock who still can’t understand why he fell so far so fast and keeps repeating that it was all for the best because it was a “learning experience.”
Despite its deficiencies (and the inherent difficulty in making a biopic about someone who’s still alive and whose life lacks an obvious “climax” — the way this sort of sports movie is supposed to end is with the formerly reprobate player pulling himself together and becoming a star, but that’s not how the real story turned out), Leaf is a quite engaging movie even if you don’t know or care that much about football. Certainly the reach of the game is such that even I knew who Ryan Leaf was and what craziness he was putting the San Diego Chargers and their fans through by his on- and off-field antics in 1998 through 2000 — and one thing that at once perplexes and fascinates about Leaf’s story is that he was relentlessly self-destructive without any of the usual excuses — he didn’t drink, do drugs or have a diagnosable mental illness; instead he was one of those too-young men thrust in a position of authority and whose relentless bravado masked some pretty obvious insecurity and fear (“Am I really that good?”).
There were at least three reporters doing interviews in the lobby outside the library auditorium, including two from TV stations (KUSI and KNSD) — and one of the people being interviewed said he thought what had ruined Leaf was the $11.5 million signing bonus the Chargers had paid him up front on top of a $30 million contract, which meant that he’d already made his pile and therefore he didn’t really have to do anything to earn it. (He’s quoted during the film as saying that he won’t have to touch that money until his kids are ready for college — though given that he’s already been married and divorced, and his relationships with women are as crazy as his relationships with everyone else, one shouldn’t hold one’s breath waiting for any more little Leaves to come into existence.) The more I think about that, the more that makes sense — though other players have got big signing bonuses and have delivered as expected.
One of the film’s most interesting characters is a kind of Greek-chorus character called “Colts Fan,” played by Geoffrey Wigdor as a slightly built white man with dark, curly hair and a hyperactive manner, whose purpose is to contrast Leaf with the young quarterback the Indianapolis Colts drafted at the same time, Peyton Manning, who led his team to a Super Bowl victory in 2007 while Leaf was coaching at a minor high school — and whose name is bracketed with Leaf throughout the film as the phenom who made it versus the one who didn’t.