Take an otherwise awful story about a guy failing in business, romance and family matters, and cast Kevin Costner. Make it a sports movie, because he’s good at those. Plaster it with enough logos and stars to turn it into a massive advertisement for the National Football League. Then sit back and let everything work its way out.
That’s about the degree of storytelling sophistication employed in the crafting of director Ivan Reitman’s “Draft Day,” a feature film that trades so heavily on its star’s marketability and that of the stars of the NFL, you could be fooled into overlooking the weak characters and ludicrous plot devices that help it get from the opening title to the credits.
First, there’s the laziness of casting someone such as Kevin Costner as the lead, struggling Cleveland Browns general manager Sonny Weaver, Jr. — divorced, struggling to keep up a healthy relationship with salary-cap-crunching co-worker Ali (Jennifer Garner), on the brink of being fired by team owner Harvey (Frank Langella), and pressured by fans and even his own mother (Ellyn Burstyn) into landing the rights players in the NFL Draft to help break the Browns’ decade-plus-long losing streak.
The multitude of problems Sonny faces are meant to help us empathize with him; to me, all they did was reinforce every cliché about lovable losers in the Cleveland sports scene and make every single plot development to overcome these hurdles all the more unbelievable. And I think I speak for most sports fans when I say that it’s almost impossible to view a character such as Sonny — brought up in a football family, multi-million-dollar job, fancy car, nice house — with nothing but contempt as we watch him fumble through his privileged life.
At the very least, watching Costner clash with temperamental head coach Vince Penn (played by Denis Leary) and trade impassioned phone calls with under-the-radar prospect Vontae Mack (played by Chadwick Boseman) add a comedic element here to drag us out of the existential woe of Sonny, which includes a puzzling subplot of him coping with his father’s death and the fact he had fired Sonny Sr. — his own father, for crying out loud — as the team’s coach. It’s particularly unnerving to try to figure out why it belongs in this film, other than to work Burstyn’s character into the film, not to mention a ridiculously concocted scene in which she shows up unannounced at Browns HQ insisting on spreading her late husband’s ashes.
But in total, moments of bewilderment such as that and the comedic nature of some of the back-and-forth between Sonny Jr. and various agents, coaches and scouts are the ones that actually work in “Draft Day.” The same is true for the similarly themed “Moneyball,” although that film benefited from having better writing, stronger dramatic character development and stronger directing. In “Draft Day,” the entire proceedings should be treated as farce but instead aim for aww-shucks endearment for Sonny, Jr. In this fictional version of an NFL franchise, with fictional people worrying about fictional stakes, the audience is asked to invest real-life fan feelings in characters that haven’t earned it — in fact, the wheeling and dealing Sonny Jr. manages during the draft destroys any degree of believability “Draft Day” had managed by bringing in ESPN commentators, real players (including Arian Foster) and shooting on location at Radio City Music Hall.
If nothing else, the film is stitched together nicely, the many scenes of Sonny bantering on the phone with others being edited together smoothly. But in terms of delivering on giving any kind of insight into the actual war-room proceedings of an NFL franchise or providing a plausible pay-off for Costner’s woe-fraught GM, “Draft Day” is a bust.
“Draft Day” is rated PG-13. Running time: Two hours. Two stars out of five.