Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sports Talk: "Draft Day" not always an exciting pick but pretty crowd-pleasing

Draft Day (2014)
100 min., rated PG-13.

Does "inside baseball" also extend to the pigskin sport? Pleasantly predictable but often clunky sports drama "Draft Day" begins with a 12-hour countdown before NFL's annual spring draft when teams recruit eligible college football players. To football fansthat is, the majority of Americait should give them an exciting rush, but to anyone else, it might feel like 12 hours in real time. Considering the film focuses on the stressful business side of trading and how much ego and negotiation skills go into making the executive decisions, synonymous-with-comedy director Ivan Reitman (2011's "No Strings Attached") and screenwriters Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph deserve due credit for thinking audiences are so predisposed to sports movie clich├ęs that they eschew all action on the field. "Draft Day" is somehow more crowd-pleasing than it could have been, even as a promotional movie or a quasi-behind-the-scenes documentary, and yet, the script and ticking clock don't exactly work up much suspense or dramatic mileage until around the third quarter.

Cleveland Browns general manager Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Kevin Costner) hasn't the best reputation as of late. He's taken to task on the radio for firing the team's coach, Sonny's recently deceased father. His clandestine girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner), also the team's accountant, has just told him she's pregnant. He also faces pressure from the Browns' franchise owner Harvey Molina (Frank Langella, forever hiding behind his shades) to turn the team around and locks horns with passive-aggressive Coach Vince Penn (Denis Leary) who's left out of making the decisions. Under the gun, Sonny has three picks for the draft: linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), running back Ray Jennings (Arian Foster of the Houston Texans), and Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from the University of Winconsin (with Sean Combs as his agent). Bo is the obvious pick, but Sonny will have to draw his own path, no matter how many feathers he ruffles.

Even though the entire film is building to the big day, "Draft Day" spends most of its time with Sonny on the calling and receiving end of the phone with other NFL team managers. Under the circumstances of repetitive talkiness in offices and conference rooms when we aren't getting aerial shots of city skylines and stadiums, director Reitman overcompensates with split screens wiping either which way and overlapping. The editing device starts out giving the phone-conversation scenes some much-needed visual flair to be cinematic, until it becomes an annoying distraction from the shop talk that tempts one to start making tallies. Apart from his professional wheeling and dealing, Sonny's personal conflicts at least exist on the page, but the outcome of each is a foregone conclusion. Since Sonny's father has recently died, his mother Barb (Ellen Burstyn), busts into Sonny's office with, for some reason, ex-wife Angie (Rosanna Arquette), to scatter Dad's ashes onto the practice field and read a prayer per his wishes. Having a son and husband whose life was the NFL, Barb must know today is an important day, but she clearly couldn't wait. Sonny is also in a relationship with Ali, who's smart about business and knows her football as well as the guys. She, too, decides to inundate Sonny on the Big Day, but every time they try to have a talk about her pregnancy in his closet, they're interrupted. A few nips and tucks could have solved these forced, tacked-on contrivances, but they're minor enough to overlook.

Kevin Costner is the selling product here, and thank goodness or the film would have been dead as a doornail. At the height of his career resurgence with his apparent love for sports movies ("Bull Durham," "Field of Dreams," "Tin Cup," and "For Love of the Game"), the ageless movie star is terrific at work. One can immediately buy Costner as a GM, keeping emotions close to his vest but being willing to take risks and prove his naysayers wrong. In a generously written but still-too-slim part as Ali, Jennifer Garner is likable and spunky with what she has to work with. In a man's world, Ali takes no B.S. and never backs down, and that's nice to see. In addition to those two big stars, Denis Leary is brash without being turned into a movie villain as the Browns' coach and Griffin Newman adds some spark as a geeky intern named Rick, the film's chief source of comic relief. Chadwick Boseman, who made a real impression playing Jackie Robinson in "42," is full of charisma as Vontae Mack, who spends time with his two nephews, but the rest of the players fail to come to life for the audience to hope the best for. 

"Draft Day" is convincing and slickly put-together, and though it could have been even more palatable, it still makes one pull for Sonny to make the right pick. Plenty of sports films have been more accessible, giving both sports buffs and casual audiences an entry point into the story. For "Moneyball," it was Aaron Sorkin's witty script; "Friday Night Lights" with Peter Berg's attention to characterization; and "Jerry Maguire" with its compelling human story and root-worthy romance. Whereas the former was able to make sabermetrics cinematically interesting, "Draft Day" gives one an education on the mechanics of trading, while still struggling to make it less esoteric. Even for non-football watchers, it will go down easily enough as a learning lesson with some entertainment value thrown in. That is, if you can stick out scene after scene of a phone to one's ear.

Grade: C +

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