2 1/2 out of 4 stars
Previewed for the press two months before opening, “Draft Day” should have been screened a week or two earlier and released Feb. 1. The big reason is that it is set during the build-up to the NFL draft and the two principal teams involved are the Cleveland Browns and the current Super Bowl champions, the Seattle Seahawks.
It’s easy to make this kind of armchair quarterback/hindsight observation; the producers had no idea the Seahawks would make to the Super Bowl (much less win it) but releasing it now — just after the baseball season has kicked in — sort of makes it feel like old news. Opening dates are changed all the time — and often with short notice. Once the Seahawks made the playoffs, the studio should have capitalized on it.
Adding to the old news quotient is the casting of Kevin Costner in the lead role. Even though this is Costner’s first football movie, it’s his fifth foray into the genial but sometimes thin sports comedy/romance sub-genre and the quality of these films starring him have steadily declined over the years. “Draft Day” isn’t horrible but it does take a long time for it to justify its existence and in the end it comes across as little more than a watered-down “Jerry Maguire” retread.
On the upside, the 59-year-old Costner (as Sonny) doesn’t play an athlete but rather the general manager of the Browns, who have the first overall pick in the upcoming draft. For those not in the know, getting the first pick is great, but it is a result of having the worst record in the league the year before, a dubious distinction that is sometimes, but not often, blamed on the team’s GM.
Although not blamed for the Browns’ current woes directly, Sonny is in the Cleveland fans’ collective doghouse (all puns intended) because he fired his own father — also the teams’ beloved head coach — who died shortly thereafter. Talk about pressure. Compounding Sonny’s stress is finding out that his secret semi-live-in girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner) — also a Browns executive — is pregnant.
Toss in some more last-minute draft day politics and some high-strung “Jerry Maguire”-flavored agents (including Sean Combs), unwanted input from the Browns’ new coach (Denis Leary — superbly acerbic), the team’s short-sighted owner (Frank Langella), Sonny’s bitter mother (Ellen Burstyn) and it’s a wonder Sonny doesn’t open up a vein and end it all.
In sort-of-but-not-quite the same career-recovery mode as Costner is director Ivan Reitman, the man behind “guy movie” classics “Ghostbusters,” “Stripes,” “Meatballs,” “Kindergarten Cop” and “Dave.” Known now mostly as the father of his more talented son Jason (“Juno,” “Up in the Air”), Reitman is more suited to a broad comedy milieu which doesn’t seem to be what screenwriters Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph were aiming for here.
Instead of going fully guy-friendly, Reitman softens some edges (the romance angle, the dead father) and gets too “inside baseball” with the industry jargon only hard-core football fans will get, understand or find interesting or enjoyable. In a manner not unlike that in “Moneyball,” neophytes will get an education in the draft process but for most it will feel more like an instructional lecture than the breezy dramedy it sets out to be.
Having more or less supplanted baseball as the national pastime, football is beyond ripe for movie subject matter, but with just a handful of exceptions (“Rudy,” “Heaven Can Wait,” “Friday Night Lights,” the TV film “Brian’s Song” and the previously mentioned “Jerry Maguire”), few filmmakers have been able to transfer the passion, immediacy and energy of the game itself on to the screen.
Just slightly pushing the movie into recommendable territory is the last half of the last act when the filmmakers ditch the melodramatic components and toss football enthusiasts some red meat. Sonny’s “big plan” slowly unfolds and it makes for an interesting and riveting reveal but also carries with it just a slight whiff of an only-in-the-movies type of scenario. It could happen in the real football world but in the eyes of knowledgeable fans and scholars of the game, it probably never would. (Summit Entertainment)