Football fanatics undoubtedly find the annual NFL draft exciting, but even they might find it difficult to work up much enthusiasm for “Draft Day,” Ivan Reitman’s formulaic, predictable take on the event. Loaded with clichés and inanities, it huffs and puffs but ends up more winded than pumped-up.
Kevin Costner stars as Sonny Weaver, Jr., general manager of the Cleveland Browns, who’s under fire from fans for firing his father, the team’s legendary coach, the preceding year and bringing in Vince Penn (Dennis Leary) from Dallas to replace him. The team’s fortunes collapsed when quarterback Brian Drew (Tom Welling) suffered a serious knee injury, and now Sonny’s under pressure from owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) to pull off a game-changer in the draft, which for him means securing the Heisman Trophy winner, Wisconsin quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), who’s represented by superagent Chris Crawford (Sean Combs). In hopes of saving his job, Sonny seals a deal with the Seattle Seahawks that will give that team all the Browns’ high draft picks for several future years in return for the number one pick this time around, presumably Callahan.
But before long Sonny begins to have doubts about Callahan, exacerbated not only by incoming information from one of his scouts but from warnings from Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), a Ohio State linebacker who’d repeatedly sacked Bo in their college games and wants a spot on the Browns roster himself. Drew, moreover, is infuriated that Sonny might be considered picking a quarterback, since it would shunt him aside—especially since he’s worked hard to get back into shape for the coming season; Penn doesn’t like the idea either, since he mistrusts rookie quarterbacks and believes in Drew, building his offensive plans around him. Sonny’s also being pestered by Earl Jennings (Terry Crews), a former Browns star, on behalf of his nephew Ray (Arian Foster), a college running back who’s been tarnished by a recent brush with the law over an alleged assault.
As if all that professional stuff isn’t enough, Sonny’s got personal problems to address, too. His girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner), who happens to be the team’s financial officer, has just announced that she’s pregnant, and Sonny doesn’t know how to respond. And his mother (Ellen Burstyn), who doesn’t like Ali, not only questions his decisions but arrives with his father’s ashes (and his ex-wife) in tow to demand that Sonny accompany them to scatter them across a practice field. And did I mention that Brian Drew has trashed Sonny’s office in frustration and is demanding to be traded?
Whew! One would imagine that with all this going on, “Draft Day” would move like lightning. But instead it plods along like a tackle who’s binged on Twinkies. Part of that’s due to Costner, whose characteristically laid-back, recessive performance doesn’t liven things up much. And partly it’s due to the script, which keeps interrupting the football story with desultory interludes between Sonny and Ali in a supply closet as they try to work things out, and even feels compels to have peripheral figures in the Browns organization announce their jobs so we’ll know who they are. A supposedly comic thread involving a nervous intern (Griffin Newman) who’s taken over the desk outside Sonny’s office further slows the picture down, as does some saccharine references to Mack’s troubled family life. This is a story about making decisions that itself turns out to be indecisive about the sort of movie it wants to be, tossing in everything from melodrama to farce with a sort of desperation.
Reitman attempts to energize things with a steady supply of split screens that show us events happening simultaneously in different places and take us swiftly from one locale to another. Admittedly it’s a cute effect when a character in one scene simply walks into another across the image line—the first time it happens. But by the tenth or twelfth, it seems as though Reitman believes that he’s stumbled onto a really revolutionary technical innovation. He hasn’t, and its impact pales with repetition.
What drives the final nail into the coffin, though, is the idiocy of the last-minute slew of deals that Sonny makes to save the day. Supposedly all the finagling makes him a hero, but in fact he could have had exactly the same result without putting himself—and us—through the wringer for two hours. And if I’m not mistaken it would have made Molina fire him rather than heap praise on him, as he does in the end. Ultimately all the sound and fury of “Draft Day” turns out to have been pointless. And what’s with Coach Penn’s bravado about winning Super Bowls in Dallas? That hasn’t happened in years, as any Cowboys fan will attest.
On the other hand, pigskin devotees might enjoy seeing the supposed behind-the-scenes maneuvers, and there are lots of real-life footballers, sports broadcasters and even NFL bigwigs on hand to add the appearance of authenticity. On the other hand, apart from Boseman, who brings some vivacity to the wild-spirited Mack, the cast is pretty much wasted. Garner is stuck in a boring role and the impressively athletic Welling has just a couple of ineffectual scenes, while Leary comes across as fuming at what for him is merely half-volume and Langella’s suave nastiness has a pro-forma feel. On the technical side everything is okay, except for those endless split screens.
At the close of “Draft Day,” Sonny Weaver’s hand-picked Browns kick off their first game of the new season. The suggestion is that it will be a winning one, but the movie is a loser.