"DRAFT DAY"-- 3 STARS
Typecasting is something that gains large discussions on many levels with movies. Some actors and actresses seem to play the same character or occupy the same role multiple times. Performers capitalize on an initial success and continue to go back to that well because of audience demand or box office success. Why else do guys like Adam Sandler and Vince Vaughn always play the "manchild" slackers? You don't see either one of them in a gritty cop film do you? They go with what works and eschew versatility.
If I were to mention the sub-genre of baseball movies when taking about sports films, who is likely one of the first people to come to mind? If you say Kevin Costner within the first three guesses, you are not alone. Starting with the outstanding "Bull Durham" from 1988, continuing on to the 1989 classic "Field of Dreams," and circling back after a decade-long gap to the under-appreciated "For Love of the Game" from 1999, Costner has easily cemented himself as the go-to baseball movie hero. Throw in the golfing comedy "Tin Cup" and his early work in the cycling racing film "American Flyer," and Costner is nothing short of a sports film icon.
So, what in the hell, to much surprise, is he doing in a football movie like "Draft Day?" Even though it's slanting towards a front office "Moneyball"-esque take on the sport, the "Draft Day" poster image of Costner holding a football is about as foreign as Adam Sandler holding an Oscar. As my redneck roots would say (and I quote from "Glory"), "that's like putting tits on a bull." They just don't go together. Rest assured, thanks to his endless versatility and charm, Costner proves again that he is a comfortable and lifting presence to any sports film.
"Draft Day" is directed by 80's legend Ivan Reitman ("Ghostbusters," "Stripes") in just his second go-around behind the camera this century and first effort since 2011's misguided "No Strings Attached." With full and flashy cooperation of the National Football League, Reitman adds glitz to a sports genre film that is completely devoid of a stereotypical big game finale. Operating in a brand conscious setting with electric personalities around every turn, "Draft Day" follows the dramatized behind-the-scenes dealings of the NFL as a more exciting football version of "Moneyball" without the ponderous angst and epic length. Folks that didn't like that film's high-brow tone can embrace their football fan inner meathead side with "Draft Day."
Costner plays Sonny Weaver, Jr., the general manager of the Cleveland Browns. He is a month removed from the death of his father who reigned over the team for decades as a legendary head coach. Before his death, Sonny did what he thought was the best for business and his father's age by actually firing him from coaching the team, a fact his mother (two-time Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn) is still frosty over. Adding more wrinkles, Sonny has been secretly romantically involved with his salary cap specialist and fellow, albeit younger, front office executive Ali, played by Jennifer Garner.
The film takes place all within the first day of the 2014 NFL Draft. Using a smooth mix of multiple-frame/split-screen scenes, a "24"-esque ticking clock, and sweeping city/stadium establishing shots to move around the NFL landscape, "Draft Day" zooms you effortlessly back-and-forth between front offices, locker rooms, war rooms, supply closets, Radio City Music Hall green rooms, practice fields, and all of the personal moments and phone calls in between that fill this very busy and important day. Sonny is our guide through this rat-race and the film rarely leaves his point of view.
Looking at the team's direct needs, Sonny favors Ohio State linebacker prospect Vontae Mack ("42" star Chadwick Boseman), a born leader he's had a lot of contact with, and Florida State running back Ray Jennings (NFL star Arian Foster of the Houston Texans), the grown son of a former Brown fan favorite (Terry Crews) who longs to play for his father's team. While they fill roster holes, both have some character smudges and neither are the "sexy" pick. Under pressure from the team's fancy owner, amusement park mogul Harvey Molina (Oscar nominee and Tony Award winner Frank Langella, clearly channeling a big dose of Jerry Jones from the Dallas Cowboys), Sonny pulls the trigger on a future-mortgaging trade with the Seattle Seahawks that leapfrogs Cleveland from picking 7th to picking 1st overall, shocking the league.
Expectantly waiting is the slam-dunk consensus top pick, highly prized Wisconsin QB stud Bo Callahan (Josh Pence of "Battleship"), groomed by a competent coach (Sam Elliot) and represented by high-powered hip-hop agent (appropriately, Sean "P-Diddy" Combs). At the price of three first round picks, Sonny is in a position to snare the best QB prospect to hit the league in years. However, not everyone is completely sold on Callahan. The loudest confrontational opinion comes from the new Super Bowl-winning head coach Sonny hired to replace his father, Vince Penn (played by Denis Leary), who doesn't want to work with a rookie and thinks the price was too high. Concurrently, the Browns have a dedicated young quarterback, Brian Drew ("Smallville" star Tom Welling), coming off of injury that is now demanding a trade after the news connecting the Browns to Callahan.
All of these entanglements and stretched bungee cords come to a head when the Browns are on the clock and the draft begins. "Draft Day" has a surprising multitude of twists and turns, both operational to the draft and personal to the characters behind the scenes. In total, the plot audibles pile on a little thick, a little preachy, and occasionally predictable before the big day ends, but nothing is sour enough to detract from the enjoyment of it all. The impressively-assembled ensemble is a fun bunch of actors to share time with and they put on a great show.
"Draft Day" is a must-see for the growing millions of die-hard NFL fans. We learn enough of the business side to get into an otherwise benign event like the NFL Draft. A film like this will raise the event's ratings for sure come May, as if the NFL needed help gaining a bigger audience and getting more butts in seats. The cameos fly in from all over, from ESPN personalities to the NFL Commissioner himself, Roger Goodell. The non-football fans might find "Draft Day" to be a little bit of glamour picture or rampant product placement, where a company is made to look good and not just one movie star. Still, thanks to Costner and company, there is more than enough to entertain and garner (no pun intended to the love interest) a few big laughs along the way. No one is winning any awards, but "Draft Day" is a welcome spring bright spot in a slow season, even if it gets trounced by "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."
LESSON #1: THE MANY FACTORS THAT GO INTO DRAFTING AND SELECTING AN NFL PLAYER-- If you ever wondered what NFL coaches and executives do in the off-season, "Draft Day" gives you sliver of a primer into the immense work that goes into player evaluation. Let's just say, it's way more than golf. As crazy, anal, and over-particular you might find some of the research work seen in the movie, like breaking down small details of game film or checking deep character references, know that all of what you see actually happens every year but is multiplied and magnified by 300 potential incoming NFL prospects and 32 NFL teams. They all get this zany about finding the right fit for their teams. Like many pros have said, it's the "ultimate job interview."
LESSON #2: BEING INFLUENCED IN MANY DIRECTIONS OTHER THAN YOUR OWN AT THE WORKPLACE-- As the general manager with final say in making these important picks, Sonny is pulled, prodded, micromanaged, and judged by dozens of factors and influences, from owners, stakeholders, coaches, scouts, players, hecklers on sports radio and even his own mother. While we may be able to relate having multiple supervisors and departments at our own jobs, Sonny is making million-dollar decisions at the helm of a billion-dollar business. Pressure is an understatement.
LESSON #3: THE DESIRE TO BUILD YOUR OWN LEGACY OR DYNASTY-- Despite the job title and the pressures, this is truly a family affair for Sonny. He is hoping to follow the footsteps of his father and bring the proud sports town of Cleveland the championship they deserve. Sonny would love to do all of that on his own power and volition, without the influences listed in Lesson #2. He wants his own accomplishment. Much like Bill Parcells famously said as a coach, "They want you to cook the dinner; at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries." Sonny wants his five-course masterpiece meal and is in the driver's seat to go get those groceries and make something special.