You can tell the kind of movie “Draft Day” is going to be by the company it keeps. The NFL and ESPN are on board, which means they approve of the story line, which means said story is safe as kittens. And holy cow, is this movie safe. That it manages to still be entertaining is to its great credit, and nearly all of that is because of Kevin Costner. Imagining this movie with anyone besides him in the lead role is unthinkable.
Sonny Weaver Jr. (Costner) is the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, and he’s feeling the heat. It’s the first day of the NFL draft – and only a few months after his father, and legendary Browns head coach, passed away – and Sonny is picking seventh. He’s fine with picking seventh, but the team’s owner, Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), is not. He wants Sonny to make a headline-worthy move, making it clear that it will cost him his job if he doesn’t. Sonny lets that pressure get the best of him by agreeing to trade a king’s ransom to Seattle for the first pick in the draft, much to the dismay of new coach, and Super Bowl winner (just ask him), Penn (Denis Leary). Having the first pick puts Sonny in position to take can’t-miss Wisconsin quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), but as the day progresses, Sonny learns things about Callahan that cause him to question Callahan’s character. Is there a way to take the decision he made to mortgage the team’s future and spin it into something he can be proud of?
Of course there is, and that’s not a spoiler. This a football fairy tale, a film that pretends to portray what life is like within the team compounds while showing impressionable youth the importance of doing the right thing instead of the popular thing. This is admirable, but any movie with such ambitions is inherently limited. Indeed, the most surprising thing in the movie was when Costner dropped a MF bomb in the third act, something that has never been done in a PG-13 movie before. Considering that “Frost/Nixon” earned an R rating for the same offense, it was shocking to hear, and really, it was completely unnecessary. ‘Son of a bitch’ would have worked just fine.
Costner spent a good decade trying to be anyone but Crash Davis, but in the odd moment when he channels Crash, great things happen. (“Bull Durham” fans will laugh out loud when Sonny asks a potential draftee about his hands.) Pity, then, that outside of Sonny, no one has much in the way of character depth. Denis Leary in particular is neutered, and it’s a sad sight to behold. There is a funny bit involving Sonny and Marvin (Kevin Dunn), where Marvin tells leading stories that beg Sonny to ask for more information, but that is as close to chemistry as the movie gets. Even the love affair between Sonny and Ali (Jennifer Garner) is muted. Director Ivan Reitman steps up his game by flexing his technique muscles in a way that we haven’t seen before, showing actors walking through the frames of the characters they’re speaking with by phone. I’m not sure how necessary it is, but it’s a neat trick, especially for a man who’s not known for having any tricks.
It’s easy to look at a movie like “Draft Day” as a cynical attempt to promote the upcoming NFL draft in the form of a feature-length film, and to be honest, we wouldn’t argue. However, Hallmark Movie of the Week characteristics aside, it manages to deliver its feel-good message without cheating any of the characters it clearly doesn’t care about. It is all sorts of predictable, and yet it works.