Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Draft Day

DRAFT DAY (Ivan Reitman, 2014)

With less than thirteen hours before the NFL Draft Cleveland Browns general manager Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) should be finishing research on whether Ohio State linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman) or Florida State running back Ray Jennings (Arian Foster) is the likely best use of the seventh pick. Although he seems content to stay put and take either player, team owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) impresses upon Sonny that he needs to make a splash. So, when the Seattle Seahawks dangle the top pick, the Browns GM makes the trade even though he gives up a king’s ransom to seal the deal.

In DRAFT DAY the owner, coaching staff, scouts, other front office personnel, and fans expect the team has moved up to select Wisconsin quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence). The bold decision causes some dissension, though. Coach Penn (Denis Leary) doesn’t think they should be using a valuable pick for a player at a position where he’s satisfied with their starter. The current QB, Brian Drew (Tom Welling), is angry that he may get displaced, especially after working hard to rehabilitate from a season-ending injury. As if the internal disagreements aren’t distracting enough, Sonny is also dealing with the news that his girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner), a Browns executive in charge of the salary cap, is pregnant and grieving for his recently deceased father, a coaching legend he fired.

Make no mistake, DRAFT DAY is a feature-length advertisement for the National Football League and its upcoming amateur draft on primetime television. The heavy hands of their legal and marketing teams are evident throughout. Although DRAFT DAY doesn’t portray the league’s employees and incoming players as choirboys, it protects them with a screenplay equivalent to a no-contact practice jersey. The character flaws and controversies look pretty mild compared to what pops up in sports pages. Meanwhile the film bestows superhero-like status upon those in NFL front offices. Director Ivan Reitman uses weaving split-screen like comic book panels and often lets the characters literally break the boundaries of their boxes. (The elements of fantasy also extend to presuming the woeful Browns will make moves that improve the franchise. Only in the movies.)

As much as the DRAFT DAY squad might like to think this fictional tale is a football version of MONEYBALL, its decision makers reinforce the status quo rather than challenge it. Even with hours of game film and pages of combine measurements, GMs try to find an edge in predicting success via secondhand gossip and the Wonderlic Test. The research and evaluative tricks are intended to serve as more evidence for burnishing the reputations of these supposedly brilliant men in front offices when they really point out how desperate the executives are to hedge their bets. The disruption caused by one football war room going against conventional wisdom is comical yet may be the most on-point detail in the film.

DRAFT DAY is smitten with the art of the deal, even if these transactions occur with high predictability and ease. Although the film takes us behind the scenes, Costner maintains the public persona of a sports GM, most of whom are notorious for saying a lot that means very little. As he wheels and deals, Costner provides faith that Sonny knows what he’s doing despite lack of proof that he is any good at his job. Because there’s surprisingly little drama in swapping picks, DRAFT DAY tries to raise the stakes by having Sonny’s private affairs compete for his attention. Costner and Garner exhibit good chemistry in mixing the professional and personal, although their subplot is a non-starter. Garner handles her thankless role nicely, but it feels like her character is there because someone noticed they needed a woman in the movie. A minor storyline about Sonny’s mother (Ellen Burstyn) wanting to go over his father’s will and a letter to him on this of all days rings completely false and takes away time from more pressing matters. Thanks in large part to Costner ‘s charisma DRAFT DAY has a folksy charm that masks the corporate promotional vehicle he’s anchoring, but anyone with a passing knowledge of pro football should be able to see this as the unadulterated myth-making it is.

Grade: C+

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