Ivan Reitman’s sports drama almost becomes a big joke
“Draft Day,” the new movie from director Ivan Reitman – from the comedic heights of “Ghostbusters” to the rom-com depths of “No Strings Attached” – seems to promise inside stories during the crucial hours leading up to an NFL draft, rooted in a world where actual NFL teams, facilities and league personnel make appearances alongside their fictional counterparts. The film is headlined by Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Kevin Costner), the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, scion of legendary – and recently deceased – coach, whom he had the infamous distinction of firing. Poor Junior’s got a full bag, not necessarily brand new though, of problems that will dog him as he tries to figure out what the best moves are for him and his struggling team.
Thanks to the rise of ESPN and its multitude of imitators, we live in a media universe where there are more stories, overflowing with the requisite dramatic feel-good elements, twists and turns, and potentially explosive outcomes than there are players being considered during the seven-round selection process. The funny thing is, what used to be little more than behind the scenes jockeying and horse-trading has become sport, in and of itself. That’s entertainment, right?
I suppose you could argue it might be, if Weaver really was in the position to make decisions that would impact the football fate of Cleveland’s downtrodden franchise. But why should a ticket-buying audience care about a pretty boy Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback (Josh Pence) who parties too much, has a website dedicated to all the beautiful girls he has scored, probably hasn’t read a playbook and is willing to lie to cover-up his lackadaisical approach to the game? His story’s not all that important or unusual. And should we truly be moved by the plight of Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), a raw pass rusher with an extended family to feed and support? Or how about the powerful running back (Arian Foster) who also happens to be the son of a beloved former Browns player (Terry Crews), and the questionable after-hours altercation that blemishes his public record?
All of these made-up mini-narratives could have been cut and pasted from real life instances, so I wish the screenwriters (Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph) had been, even marginally, creative with their arts and crafts job – they didn’t bother cutting out clothes for their raggedy paper dolls. Of course, since we’re in the realm of sports, a portion of the blame for this loss belongs to Reitman who, as director, should be seen as the head coach of this inept display. If “Draft Day” were, for instance, a series of offensive plays during a game, we would be stuck in an almost impossible third down and very, very long situation, in need of a hero with a calm head.
Which leads, inevitably, to the actor playing Sonny Weaver, Jr. This is a Kevin Costner movie, despite the draw of the title and the subject matter, so it falls on the broad shoulders of Costner to make a play – the big game-saving play to redeem things and pull out a win. And, by golly, it’s amazing to watch the guy in action because he really is the actor’s version of Peyton Manning. Costner’s obviously a practical and superbly prepared performer, but all of the effort goes into not letting any of the exertion show. There’s not a single actor’s tic in his work, which means he can even transform a wobbly hackney line into a surprisingly authentic piece of dialogue that might have sprung from a real person.
He gives it his all, and while he falls far short of dragging “Draft Day” across the goal line, Costner earns a measure of respect for a valiant comeback. He says again and again in the movie you only get drafted once (so enjoy the ride), but he makes a strong case for the possibility of redemption. Forgive me for the cliché, but true winners never quit.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.