“Draft Day” has a reliable veteran star (Kevin Costner) and an old-hand director (Ivan Reitman) but a pair of rookie screenwriters, and it shows.
Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman fall into the newbie trap of thinking more is more. They’ve got a great, uncomplicated premise: The general manager of the Cleveland Browns football team is desperately scrambling to make a splash on NFL Draft Day, furiously working the phones and making seemingly desperate trades as the minutes tick by.
Made with the full cooperation of the National Football League and ESPN, plus the participation of dozens of football luminaries and media figures, it has the authentic feel of a peek behind doors that remain largely closed to fans. Now, that’s an intriguing enough premise out of which to milk plenty of drama, laughs and tears.
But the screenwriters keep going, and going … and then they go a little further. They pile challenge after interpersonal challenge atop the head of their protagonist, Sonny Weaver Jr. (Costner). It’s supposed to ratchet up the tension, but the story ends up with so many distractions it’s hard for the main narrative to gain traction till the end.
Start with the fact that Sonny’s got an overbearing team owner (Frank Langella) who’d like nothing better than to can his GM if the day doesn’t play out right. And Sonny’s dad, the legendary coach of the Browns, died last week … after Sonny fired him the previous season. He’s got his brittle mother (Ellen Burstyn) butting into his affairs. Plus he’s been having an affair on the sly with an underling (Jennifer Garner), and now she wants to be more than the secret girlfriend … oh, and they’ve just learned they’re having a baby, too.
And that’s before we even get into the minutia of the actual football draft, with the various potential players, their parents and agents, and assorted intrigues.
Sonny suspects the surefire #1 quarterback (Josh Pence) is a bust. He’d rather pick the lower-profile defensive player of proven character (Chadwick Boseman). There’s also pressure to choose a sleek running back (Arian Foster) who’s the son of a favorite Browns player.
The movie finally comes through after a very slow start, and the last 45 minutes or so are extremely engaging as the actual draft drama plays out. Just when you think he’s done, Sonny whips out another card from up his sleeve.
Frankly, Costner is probably about 15 years too old for this role. (A maverick guy in his mid-40s contemplating fatherhood and putting down roots is fascinating; pushing 60, it’s just pathetic.) But he brings a well-worn, no-nonsense solidity to the role. His Sonny feels put-upon and doesn’t carry a big ego, but there’s a well-tended fire in his belly. He’s a naturally cautious guy desperate to throw one long bomb and hope for the best.
I also enjoyed Denis Leary as Vince Penn, the new-ish coach of the Browns who’s constantly knocking heads with his boss. Puckish and manipulative, a guy who clearly thinks he’s the big fish in what he considers a small pond, Vince has his own ideas about who to draft. And if that means throwing his GM under the bus to get his way, then that’s what winners do.
Reitman, better known for comedy and lacking a genuine hit for 20 years, hits his stride just when the material does, when the actual draft starts. You’ve got that built-in pressure of having to make your pick before the time runs out or getting leapfrogged by other teams, a tension that Reitman uses well to his advantage.
(That made sound like showbiz hooey, but it’s actually happened a couple of times in recent years.)
This movie would have been much better served, though, by winnowing down the side characters and subplots and focusing on the meat of what is a really compelling story. That’s playing to your strengths, something every good veteran should know.