Conventional "Draft Day" Spins A Web Of Product Placement

Director Ivan Reitman – he of “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters” fame – might seem an unlikely candidate to helm a sports film steeped in corporate ornamentation. But recall that this is also the filmmaker behind “Ghostbusters II” – followed up by decades of even more forgettable fare – and the overblown theatrics of the thoroughly fictional “Draft Day” start to make sense. For all of the good projects Reitman has been involved in – he’s also been a prolific producer – there are many more questionable ones. His latest isn’t an exception to that rule, although direction isn’t its problem. In fact, Reitman is a serviceable maestro here, mustering a considerable amount of drama from a pedestrian script.

No, first time screenwriters Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph bear the brunt of the film’s shortcomings, beginning with hackneyed dialogue and ending in a willingness to breed total incredulity on the part of the audience. “Draft Day,” set over the course of 12 hours, is a film intent on holding the hand of each audience member, as if they know nothing of American football, all the while passing off silly plot machinations as things that actually happen in professional sports. They don’t.

It’s not fair to harp on a film for its poster, but plastering your lead character over a location (Radio City Music Hall) that he never visits in the film is a hint that you might have conceptual problems. Kevin Costner stars as that lead character, Sonny Weaver Jr., embattled Cleveland Browns general manager and generally uncharismatic oaf. Browns fans hate him, many of his employees hate him – including Denis Leary, smarming it up as the team’s head coach – his dad and legendary Browns head coach recently passed away, and surprise, his mom (Ellen Burstyn) kind of hates him, too.

Jennifer Garner plays Ali, the Browns’ salary cap specialist and the lone bright spot in Sonny’s life, but he’s too caught up in being morose to realize what an intelligent and understanding girlfriend he has. When she breaks the news of her pregnancy to him, he stares at her blankly before going about his day. Because it’s draft day, and NFL lifers don’t have time for unimportant things like babies and significant others and happiness.

When meddling Browns owner, Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), insists that Sonny “make a splash” to get the franchise out of its losing ways – because those two things always go hand in hand – Sonny brashly trades away three consecutive first round picks in order to move up to the top of the draft. Enter a quarterback controversy between GM and head coach, along with some familial melodrama involving a few potential top ten picks, and you have a recipe for a groan-inducing two hours.

To Reitman’s credit, the suspense inherent in the NFL draft is palpable, giving us a sense as to how drastically it changes lives. “Draft Day” isn’t particularly good, but damn it if it isn’t accessible and frequently entertaining. Chadwick Boseman (“42”) and Arian Foster (Pro Bowl running back for the Houston Texans) feature as two of these prospects, the former bringing his natural screen presence to a shell of a character, and the latter blessing us with one of the strangest scenes of the year. Rarely (read: never) do you get to see an active professional athlete donning another team’s uniform, but it happens here and it’s a bizarre sight.

But for all of the typical sports movie clichés that pop up in “Draft Day” – sweeping music, faux-inspirational dialogue, agonizingly predictable plot points – the pic’s place as an NFL-sanctioned puff piece is what’s most alarming. Aside from a few token curse words, “Draft Day” is a sanitized, conglomerate-friendly ad for the NFL (and many of its sponsors), complete with a cameo from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and end credits overcrowded with out of place action stills featuring current NFL stars – stars that theoretically don’t exist in the fictional universe of the film.

All of this corporate window dressing makes it hard to take seriously, and the implausibility of the story only adds to the feeling of uneasiness. “Draft Day” is not a terrible film and no one involved with it does terrible work, although Reitman’s overuse of split screen and hyperactive transitions might convince some moviegoers otherwise. But it’s a specter of a story, one inhabited by a talented cast with little to do, and – as if the sports film genre needed to provide more ammo to its critics – it brings absolutely nothing new to the table, apart from a new form of advertisement for professional sports. Even the most diehard sports fans will be hard-pressed to argue that “Draft Day” is anything more than a vaguely engaging cliché of a movie.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: April 11, 2014
Studio: Summit Entertainment (Lionsgate)
Director: Ivan Reitman
Screenwriter: Rajiv Joseph, Scott Rothman
Starring: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Ellen Burstyn, Denis Leary, Frank Langella, Chadwick Boseman, Arian Foster
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language and sexual references)