Silver Screen: Draft Day *
If you’re the sort of person who gets a big thrill from a cameo appearance by National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell, Draft Day just might be the picture for you. It’s tough to imagine anyone enjoying this inert sports-business drama short of football fanatics jonesing for a shot of movie methadone to keep them steady until their next pigskin fix. It’s a football movie in which not a single down is played, unless you count the handful of vintage highlight clips provided by NFL Films, which mostly serve as a reminder that you just paid eight bucks to watch a feature-length commercial for one of the wealthiest corporations in America.
The movie’s action is confined almost entirely to an eventful twelve hours in the life of Cleveland Browns general manager Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner), although despite the confined timeline, ticking-countdown clock, and surfeit of subplots, there’s little intensity or immediacy. Weaver is second-generation football royalty whose legendary father was the Browns coach— until last year, when Sonny fired the old man. Sonny is expected to use this year’s draft to get the team back on course. He’s already struggling with the choice for his seventh-round pick when the Seattle Seahawks’ general manager (Patrick Saint Esprit) offers him a trade that leverages the Browns’ future draft picks against the possibility of taking a hotshot quarterback in the first round.
Feel the boredom creeping in as you slog through that last paragraph? That’s the proper response to trying to find relevance in the nerdy behind-the-scenes dealings for a pretend sporting event. Watching the actual NFL draft is dull enough, and only interesting for the consequences it will have on actual football games. Watching a pretend NFL draft is like sitting through an Oscars ceremony to see which non-existent filmmaker wins best director for a movie he never made and that you can never see.
Draft Day’s one big opportunity to distinguish itself is to shed light on the realities of front-office football politics, but that’s exactly the kind of peek-behind-the-curtain the NFL certainly doesn’t want. Keep in mind that all the real-life logos and team names and cameos from NFL Network and ESPN commentators means this is a corporate-sponsored movie, no more trustworthy than if Coca-Cola made a two-hour drama about the inspiring story behind the creation of a delicious and totally healthy soft drink.
Not only does Draft Day fail as an exposé, it doesn’t even follow basic football logic. Sonny’s decisions throughout the movie are arbitrary, and the improbable wheeling and dealing he does throughout leads to a totally absurd climax that’s also entirely predictable once you realize the narrative is driven by emotional appeals rather than the realities of the sports business. Does it even count as a spoiler alert if I pose the rhetorical question: Which player will Sonny go with, the evil Tom Brady clone (Josh Pence) or the charismatic young player (Chadwick Boseman) who needs money to help raise his dead sister’s orphaned sons?
Draft Day fumbles the drama as well. Among Sonny’s distractions are his much younger girlfriend (Jennifer Garner), who works in the Browns’ accounting department managing the salary cap, and his meddling mother (Ellen Burstyn). The never-believable Garner is especially unlikely as the generic girlfriend character who also happens to be a football expert. As in most lazily written movies with poorly constructed female characters clearly designed to appeal to the most basic instincts of a target male demographic, Garner’s girlfriend character has no backstory of her own and exists only to serve the male lead while evincing improbable and unearned expertise. In any such movie, be it about cars or football, look for the underwritten female character to prove her coolness by spouting wildly specific details or statistics to show she knows just as much as the boys. (“Do I remember the Packers’ second preseason game from 2007? You mean the home game that was slightly overcast with a high dewpoint where Favre threw a sixty-two-yard pass with eighteen seconds left on the clock to James Jones, who was wearing mismatched socks and suffering from a sinus infection for which he had that morning been proscribed generic amoxicillin?”)
Garner’s character is such a huge football fan that she takes it upon herself to reveal to Sonny that she’s pregnant with his child on the very morning of the biggest, most stressful day of his career. Meanwhile, his mother, also posited as a football expert, chooses the day of the draft to scatter Sonny’s father’s ashes on the field. Not only are both events flagrantly illogical, they add zero intrigue to the business-of-football storyline.
Director Ivan Reitman, long since removed from his glory days of Stripes and Ghostbusters, attempts to jazz up the flat script from Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph by stylizing the bland conversations— Draft Day’s version of action sequences— with the heavy use of wipes and split-screens. It gives Draft Day the feel of animated comic-book panels, but the visual distraction doesn’t add any momentum to what were clearly on paper boring stretches of expository dialogue. Nor does the constant, unnecessary camera movement and jittery editing do anything to distract from the terrible performances of its worst actors, especially Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, who seems to be using all three of his functioning brain cells to remember not to look directly into the camera.
About half the movie’s ensemble really would be well-suited to a football movie. Costner is a first-ballot hall of famer for sports movies, and Boseman, so good as Jackie Robinson in Forty-two, is immediately compelling. Even real-life pro footballer and NFL smartypants Arian Foster is pretty good in his couple of scenes with an underused Terry Crews, while Dennis Leary makes for a believably belligerent Jim Harbaugh-style coach.
But Draft Day is less focused on drama than commerce. How else to explain the dozen or so aerial shots of pro football stadiums that linger so long you’d think Terrence Malick had grabbed the camera? Draft Day isn’t about insight or emotion; it’s about flashing logos and giving sponsor shoutouts and reminding you how much you love to spend money to support America’s other tax-exempt church. (Yep, the NFL is a tax-exempt organization— look it up.) Draft Day is a godawful movie, but it may find second life as softcore stadium porn.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.