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Draft Day
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by Peter Sobczynski

"They Want To Play For Cleveland? Must Be Fantasy Football"
2 stars

Ever watch a football game where one team builds up such a commanding lead in the first half that they decide to put the rest of the match in the hands of the lesser scrubs and they somehow manage to transform an easy win into a heartbreaking and disappointing loss? The new sports-themed comedy-drama "Draft Day" is a lot like that. For roughly the first half of its running time, it provides viewers with an intriguing look at the behind-the-scenes machinations of a football franchise during the annual event in which destinies can be made and destroyed long before the players even hit the field but then it squanders it with a second half that makes that old Disney movie about the place-kicking mule seem plausible by comparison. This is a bummer because the film does have some smarts and a nice lead performance by Kevin Costner but not even they can help a finale so ridiculously contrived that it would leave even Chris Berman speechless, which might be its only advantage.

Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., the general manager of the Cleveland Browns and a man who, as the story opens, is at a personal and professional crossroads. He has just learned that he and co-worker/secret girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner) are about to have a baby and it is apparent that he fumbled badly in regards to his immediate reaction. He is still reeling from the recent death of his father, an event made more difficult to deal with because he wound up firing his old man from his position as head coach. On the professional side, he is trying to figure out a way of using his first-round draft pick to find a player that will help the team rise from its state of perpetual mediocrity but the two players he is most keen on signing--Vantae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), a brilliant player with a rap sheet, and Ray Jennings (Arian Foster), a talent whose father (Terry Crews) was a former Browns star--are not the kind of marquee talents that can turn a franchise around. This is made clear when team owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) informs him that if he doesn't make a big splash at this year's draft, he may be out of a job very soon.

The splashiest player in this year's draft is hunky quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence)--a player with all the right stats and a mug made for product endorsements--who is certain to be taken by the Seattle Seahawks with their number one pick. However, the Seahawks, who can't quite use Callahan but recognize the value of their pick, unexpectedly contact Sonny and trade their #1 pick for the Browns' first and second round picks for the next three years. When word of the deal gets out, Sonny becomes a hero in the eyes of Molina and the town but his head coach (Denis Leary) is outraged--Sonny has essentially mortgaged the team's future to get a player that they don't even need since their once-injured quarterback has come back from rehab stronger than ever. Over the course of the long day leading up to that evening's first-round draft, Sonny must reconcile all his problems while trying to figure out whether Callahan really is the next big thing or the next Ryan Leaf.

Essentially, "Draft Day" is a football movie that not only does not hinge on a big game but never actually gets onto the field of play during its running time--it is sort of the gridiron equivalent of "Moneyball." That may sound like an obscure approach for a movie but in a world with media outlets like ESPN, countless sports-obsessed websites and fantasy leagues galore, it actually makes sense and in the hands of a filmmaker like Robert Altman or Michael Ritchie, the result could have served as a fascinating microcosm of America's fascination with professional sports as well as a penetrating look at the conflict between those who are in it for the love of the sport and those who are basically in it for the glamour and the money. Of course, since both Altman and Ritchie are dead, another filmmaker had to be found and while I can't say that Ivan Reitman, the man behind such broad comedy classics as "Stripes" and "Ghostbusters," would have been my first choice as director, he keeps things moving along nicely enough for a while and while some of his visual tricks (such as an inordinate amount of split-screen) get a little tiresome after a while, he does manage to make a film that consists almost entirely of people sitting at desks looking at stats far more energetic than it has any right to be.

The trouble with "Draft Day" is that while the script by first-time screenwriters Scott Rothman & Rajiv Joseph starts off as a smart and well-informed take on the subject of the business of sport--still the one area of polite society where the buying and selling of human beings is looked upon with favor--that finds a way to convey the details to audiences in a clear and interesting manner. Unfortunately, about halfway through, it appears that they got worried that audiences might tire of this approach and decided to goose things up with a number of melodramatic plot points. I could have cared less, for example, about Garner's impending pregnancy and her semi-clandestine relationship with Costner. I cared even less than that about the inclusion of Costner's mother (Ellen Burstyn), who complains about the trade publicly, treats Garner like the hired help and turns up at the worst possible time, with Costner's ex-wife (Rosanna Arquette in a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance) in tow, to demand to scatter her late husband's ashes right then and there so as to remind Costner about the troubled relationship with his father. I guess these elements were added in order to expand the audience appeal of the film but lets face it, the vast majority of people paying money to see a film entitled "Draft Day" are not going for the soap opera histrionics and those that might are not going to pay money to see a film called "Draft Day" in the first place. (Although I have no way of knowing this for certain, there is the suggestion that the participation of the NFL--none of the faux league and teams that hampered the otherwise interesting "Any Given Sunday"--meant that some of the more penetrating material was put aside so as not to cause trouble.)

The worst thing is how the film promises to be a highly detailed look at the drafting process and all the things that it entails but chickens out on nearly all of them in the end. We are set up, for example, to believe that there is something about the star quarterback that no one else notices that invites hesitation from Sonny, that Vantae's criminal record could scotch his professional career entirely and that Sonny's firing of his own father was nothing more than the cruelest power play imaginable. Alas, the screenplay wimps out on all of them--the QB's flaw is about as subtle as John Malkovich's tell in "Rounders" and the details surrounding Vantae and Sonny's misdeeds are such that, were they made public, they would lead to ticker-tape parades and endless celebrations of their character and nobility. Then there is the finale, a sequence in which everything breaks for Sonny in just the right way at just the right time that it becomes impossible to believe in any of it--instead of getting caught up in the process, all I could hear was the grinding of the narrative gears needed to give the film the straightforward happy ending that someone decided that it needed. (That is, of course, if you can make yourself believe that playing for the Cleveland Browns somehow constitutes a happy ending.)

It is a shame that "Draft Day" falls apart the way that it does because it has some good things here and there. There is a strong performance by Kevin Costner--pretty much the reigning king of sports movies--that helps to keep things from spiraling out of control, at least for a while, some funny lines here and there (though the most hilarious of the bunch is mostly inadvertent--a suggestion that the Dallas Cowboys are still a football powerhouse) and a good sense of pacing. All of it is for naught, however, thanks to a screenplay that starts off like "Sports Center" and ends like "Sports Night." Still, football fanatics who are currently in withdrawal might find the first half of it of interest and the second half as amusing as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" must be to archeologists. Unfortunately, like too many other football teams over the years, it decides to play it safe instead of taking chances and winds up coming up short in the end.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=26013&reviewer=389
originally posted: 04/11/14 10:23:45
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USA
  11-Apr-2014 (PG-13)
  DVD: 02-Sep-2014

UK
  N/A

Australia
  11-Apr-2014
  DVD: 02-Sep-2014



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