Kevin Costner checks off another sport in his filmography with the pro football fabrication Draft Day, a movie as condescending as one of those NFL clinics for housewives. This movie doesn't even trust viewers to know where teams play, boldly, laughably announcing cities as "home of the (fill in the mascot)."
Like the marginally more entertaining Moneyball, Draft Day is less about the game than the front office and an executive in crisis mode. Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., general manager for the long-suffering Cleveland Browns, whose recently deceased father coached the team until a clunking reveal in the script. Things are so bad for the Browns that the Dog Pound fan section should have Sarah McLachlan singing for donations.
The Browns are slotted seventh in the NFL's annual draft. Sonny's in Cleveland, leaning toward selecting linebacker Vontae Mack, played by 42 star Chadwick Boseman, while team owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) wants a splashier pick to sell tickets. An offer from Seattle to trade the No. 1 pick for the Browns' future is accepted early. Then the real horse trading and logic stretching begins. Sonny's job is on the line and Cleveland will soon be on the clock.
At this point, screenwriters Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph can be flagged for piling on. Draft Day adds needless romance because it's Costner, this time Jennifer Garner as his salary cap expert and down-low girlfriend, Ali. She's pregnant, leading to heartfelt talks in storage closets. Sonny's mother (Ellen Burstyn) and ex-wife (Rosanna Arquette) also intrude, carrying out a dying wish, and disapproving of Ali. No one thinks this might not be a good time?
After such off-the-field distractions are shoved aside, Draft Day hits a mildly entertaining stride. The final 20 minutes at the Radio City Music Hall extravaganza are fairly tense, in highly improbable ways designed to rouse send-off cheers.
Director Ivan Reitman, who left his comedy chops somewhere in the '90s, trots out three channels worth of ESPN experts and even commissioner Roger Goodell to lend his movie a measure of credibility. All that football insight and nobody suggested that some things don't happen like this in the NFL. That general managers on the edge don't listen to sports talk harpies on draft day, and team owners don't wait until hours before the first pick to inquire what the team needs.
Compliments to Reitman's editors, Dana E. Glauberman and Sheldon Kahn, for a unique method of displaying telephone conversations so vital to this screenplay. Rather than using a typical split screen between parties, the editing allows one image to superimpose on another, one person violating the other caller's space. The effect creates interesting movement and visual cues, like Sonny literally shouldering his way into a deal, or being breezed past by another GM as if he's a panhandler.
Costner's weary independence slips easily into another sports-as-life metaphor. But the sleeper pick here is Denis Leary as Penn, doing a nifty Jon Gruden impression. Penn won a Super Bowl ring with another coach's foundation, intensely dislikes rookie quarterbacks and spews huddle jargon as proof of intellect. He's so Gruden that when the real Gruden shows up you wish he were Leary. The rest of Draft Day should keep it so real.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.