It’s NFL draft time, and the Cleveland Browns’ general manager Sonny Weaver (Kevin Costner) is in a tight spot. The pressure is on from the public, the team’s owner (Frank Langella), the coach (Denis Leary) and the rest of the organization to build the best team possible. He manages the unthinkable early on and gets his team the first pick, but it was a panicked move that actually does more harm than good. Now he’s on the clock and running out of time – it’s the ninth inning, he’s in the end zone, and there’s blood on the ice – oh, and his girlfriend (Jennifer Garner) just told him that she’s pregnant.
This is the kind of crazy day that can only fully be captured with split screens. Lots and lots of split screens. Thankfully director Ivan Reitman is happy to oblige. It’s almost as if he just discovered the technology or is trying to win a contest.
Draft Day is a poor man’s Moneyball in the sense that the screenwriters probably watched Moneyball at some point and thought to themselves “what if a rogue personality went against the grain to build their, wait for it, football team?” In addition to changing sports though they also swapped statistics and logic for gut instinct and contrivance, replaced character depth with daddy issues and removed any semblance of dramatic suspense by setting the story entirely on one day and off the field.
Sonny wakes to the news that Ali is pregnant with his child, but it’s draft day you silly woman and other things are on his mind so he handles the situation somewhat poorly. He has a lot to prove to the people of Cleveland after firing the Browns’ beloved coach, his own father no less, who passed away recently and still sits strong in people’s memories. The day gets worse though when sly maneuvering from the Seattle Seahawks’ GM (Patrick St. Esprit) convinces Sonny to trade three years worth of picks for this year’s hot QB ticket, Bo Callahan (Josh Pence).
The action makes him a hero to some and a fool to others, but it also sees him going against his instincts when it comes to three other players. There’s the team’s current quarterback (Tom Welling) who’ll be benched in Callahan’s shadow, the son (Arian Foster) of a legendary Browns player (Terry Crews), and finally the flashy, big mouthed, kind-hearted, and talented Rod Tidwell Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman). These are three good young men. Remember that as there will be implied suspense later on when we wring our hands in anticipation and worry as to whether or not they’ll make the team.
I kid of course as there’s nothing resembling suspense to be found here. It’s a sports film where the alleged drama is taking place entirely off the field, but the rapid-fire pace of draft day fails to generate anything resembling excitement for two reasons. First, it’s clear early on where each character will end up by the end. Sure it’s a certain kind of movie we expect to end well, but fates are fairly well telegraphed even beyond that. And second, the details (which may or may not be accurate) are presented in such a convoluted and vague way that only viewers already familiar with the draft process will know and appreciate the supposed weight of the various decisions.
There’s also no real heart. Costner does his best, but while he continues to be Hollywood’s most earnest onscreen soul-searcher the script (from newcomers Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph) gives him nothing to work with of any real value. The film aims for both a father/son angle and the budding adult relationship between Sonny and Ali, but neither subplot registers more than a blip. The lack of chemistry between Costner and Garner is part of it to be sure, but it’s the script that fails them both. Honestly, the most emotionally affecting moment in the film is when John Candy shows up in some archival footage.
The cast is fine throughout, but no one feels the need to stretch in their roles. Garner and Costner don’t mesh all that well, but she remains a spunky performer and lands a few laughs along the way. Also in the “occasionally funny” bin are Leary’s hard-nosed, proud of his Superbowl ring coach and a nerdy temp (Griffin Newman) who gets caught up in the day’s activities.
But like a team without a playbook those individual players are unable to come together for the greater good. Reitman tries to liven things up with the aforementioned split screens, and they do pop when characters cross the split in part or in whole, but the film is ultimately a series of phone calls and alternating moments of frustration and celebration. It’s not about a ragtag group of underdogs coming together to fight their way towards victory… it’s about the wheeling and dealing required to secure million dollar paychecks. Hooray!
Draft Day is probably the best thing Reitman’s directed since Dave, and that came out in 1993. One glance at the six other films he’s made in that time reveals that this isn’t much of a compliment though. Still, no one contemplates in earnest like Costner, and that alone makes this a movie worth seeing (at some point, possibly on a plane.) Plus, you know, split screens!
The Upside: Kevin Costner contemplates with the best of them; some laughs
The Downside: “Suspense” is minimal but still requires some detailed sports knowledge; stale romance; drama feels inconsequential
On the Side: The movie was originally about the Buffalo Bills, but it was changed to the Cleveland Browns because production costs were cheaper in Ohio.