Draft Day: Film Review

An off-season gift for even the casual football fan.

Kevin Costner plays the general manager of the Cleveland Browns in director Ivan Reitman's football drama.

The pre-preseason opening kickoff of the 2014 National Football League season is returned for a score in Draft Day, an entirely conventional serio-comic sports world melodrama that pushes its buttons with undeniable professional finesse. In his most effective full star turn in perhaps a decade, Kevin Costner dominates as the greenhorn general manager of the beleaguered Cleveland Browns who could emerge from the heavy shadow of his late revered father with the successful handling of the annual draft of college players. The Summit/Lionsgate release will be huge in Cleveland and looks to perform well, especially with older males, anywhere football fans could use a little off-season juice, which is just about everywhere in the country.

Most great sports stories center on an underdog and Costner's Sonny Weaver Jr. can claim that status on at least two counts: He's a man well into his 50s who has never been able to make his own mark due to his dad's legendary status, and his team is Cleveland, a dyed-in-the-wool football town that hasn't had a team win it all since 1964. Further cementing Sonny's status as a late bloomer, if not something of a Peter Pan, is that he's just learned he's to become a dad for the first time, courtesy of his secret relationship with one of the team's financial executives, Ali (Jennifer Garner). From every point of view, Sonny's got something to prove.

The screenwriting team of Rajiv Joseph (who wrote the acclaimed play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and was a writer for two seasons on Nurse Jackie) and Scott Rothman make it easy even for the uninitiated to get with the program, using real ESPN announcers and plenty of other commentary to clarify the workings of the draft, as NFL teams annually line up and sometimes jockey for position to select new players; although the order of selection is theoretically based on performance from the previous season, teams can bargain with each other for higher picks, negotiations which involve last-minute phone calls right down the wire and owe much both to shrewd talent assessment skills and great gambling instincts.

This season, the number one pick belongs to Seattle and the consensus top prospect is star Wisconsin quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), who's the sort of talent you build a team around. Seattle wants to claim him but, under pressure from the intimidating Cleveland team owner (Frank Langella) to make a “splash,” Sonny negotiates first dibs on Callahan for a tall price, that of the Browns's first-round draft picks for the next three years.

Much of the film's dialogue, especially in the early-going, consists of urgent cellphone conversations across the nation as the countdown to the opening bell of the draft runs in digital numbers onscreen. Director Ivan Reitman and editors Sheldon Kahn and Dana E. Glauberman find a way out of dully repetitive cross-cutting between speakers on both ends by employing a smoothly sliding split-screen technique in which images of talkers push their way part, half or sometimes all the way into the widescreen frame and even sometimes stride across the entire screen from one image to the next. It's not something you'd want to see used all the time, but it's reasonably clever and, at the least, a novelty that freshens up an otherwise ordinary film stylistically.

Although the whole football world seems to think Callahan is the latest incarnation of Joe Montana or Tom Brady, Sonny isn't so sure, prompting alternately amusing and concerning probes into the QB's past behavior. Not only that, but Sonny has long had his eye on two other great college players, played by Chadwick Boseman (from 42) and actual Houstan Texans running back Arian Foster. But he would seem to have given up on them by dealing for Callahan, a move that has understandably infuriated the Browns' present quarterback (Tom Welling).

It's Sonny's lot to take a lot of crap from almost everyone around him, particularly from his disrespectful coach (Denis Leary), who loves to shove his Super Bowl ring from his Dallas days in his face, and even from his mother (a most amusing Ellen Burstyn), who selects this of all days to conduct a memorial ceremony for her husband and cast his ashes upon the practice field named for him.

But making Sonny human, and warming up the film so much that even non-fan female viewers will likely find it engaging, is his relationship with Ali. Real life would probably see a man in Sonny's high-pressure situation telling the woman he's just learned he's knocked up to please put their needed conversation on hold for 24 hours. Raised a Browns fan, Ali is into the draft frenzy herself, realistic and helpful to Sonny when he needs it. All the same, the two amusingly retreat to a storeroom several times in an attempt at some private moments, which seldom go uninterrupted for long. Garner's a treat here.

Although almost always engaging and seemingly true to the world it depicts, Draft Day is never quite as funny as you somehow think it's going to be. To a great extent, this is likely due to the choice of the leading actor, whose deliberate pacing slows the pace of dialogue interchange to a level less mirthful than some of the supporting actors seem to be going for. To his credit, though, Costner's thoughtful approach not only gives Sonny an extra dimension as a character but hints at unspoken past issues involving his tough father and his ex-wife (Rosanna Arquette) that likely made it hard for him to grow up and come into his own without complexes. It's a very welcome performance,

The supporting cast is good for some laughs and the background, especially toward the end, is filled out by recognizable real-life sports figures, not only the TV announcers but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and such former players as Deion Sanders, Bernie Kosar and the greatest Brown of all, Jim Brown.

Although the longtime plight of the Cleveland team is very real, the rest is fiction. All the same, it's tough to embrace, or even overlook, some of the odd circumstantial discrepancies between the film and real life, notably the most recent Super Bowl winners, the Seattle Seahawks, being positioned as the needy number-one seed in the draft, and even more the idea that Leary's coach proudly brandishes a Super Bowl ring won in Dallas, a city that hasn't won anything since the last century.

Much as one might like to imagine that making a film about the city's prolonged sports dry spell might change its luck, one might remember that Major League, a humorous look at the Cleveland Indians's baseball follies, was released in 1989 but the team still hasn't won a world series a quarter-century later.

Opens: April 11 (Summit/Lionsgate)

Production: Montecito Picture Company, Oddlot Entertainment

Cast: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary, Frank Langella, Sam Elliott, Sean Combs, Terry Crews, Ellen Burstyn, Chadwick Boseman, Rosanne Arquette, W. Earl Brown, Kevin Dunn, Arian Foster, Brad William Henke, Chi McBride, Griffin Newman, Josh Pence, David Ramsey, Patrick St. Esprit, Timothy Simmons, Tom Welling, Wade Williams

Director: Ivan Reitman

Screenwriters: Rajiv Joseph, Scott Rothman

Producers: Ivan Reitman, Ali Bell, Joe Medjuch

Executive producers: Tom Pollock, Michael Beugg, Gigi Pritzker, Bill Lischak, Michael Nathanson

Director of photography: Eric Steelberg

Production designer: Stephen Altman

Costume designer: Frank Fleming

Editors: Sheldon Kahn, Dana E. Glauberman

Music: John Debney

PG-13 rating, 109 minutes