Monday, April 14, 2014

In Theaters: DRAFT DAY (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Ivan Reitman.  Written by Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman.  Cast: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary, Frank Langella, Chadwick Boseman, Ellen Burstyn, Sam Elliott, Tom Welling, Sean Combs, Terry Crews, Arian Foster, Josh Pence, Timothy Simons, David Ramsey, Wade Williams, Chi McBride, Patrick St. Esprit, Rosanna Arquette, Brad William Henke, Kevin Dunn, Griffin Newman, W. Earl Brown, Pat Healy. (PG-13, 108 mins)

It's only April and DRAFT DAY is already the third major release this year to star the busy Kevin Costner, after taking the aging mentor role in JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT and trying a Liam Neeson-styled Luc Besson actioner with 3 DAYS TO KILL.  DRAFT DAY is more in line with vintage Costner, a sort-of "give the fans what they want" move that finds him back in the realm of the sports dramedy, where he's had some of his biggest successes. DRAFT DAY's beleaguered Cleveland Browns GM Sonny Weaver Jr. is cut from the same cloth as BULL DURHAM's Crash Davis, TIN CUP's Ray McAvoy, and FOR LOVE OF THE GAME's unsubtly-named Billy Chapel: the no-bullshit straight-shooter who got where he is by going against the grain, following his gut, being his own man, and doing what's right.  Sonny also has something to prove: it's 2014 draft day, he's in his third year with the team and he's still in rebuilding mode.  He's also living in the shadow of his legendary father Sonny Sr., a former Browns coach who just died a week earlier, just a year after retiring from football--a retirement that he got after he was fired by his own son.  He's got an irate new head coach in Penn (Denis Leary), who got a Super Bowl ring coaching the Cowboys and wants more say in the direction of the team. He's got a flashy billionaire owner in Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) who doesn't care about the team's strategic needs and just wants a superstar draft pick and the media circus guaranteed to follow. He'd rather make linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman) their top draft pick but he already had to make a deal with the Seahawks to trade draft picks so he can please Molina and secure Heisman Trophy winning QB Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), even though he senses some red flags and they already have a top-notch QB in Brian Drew (Tom Welling).  And finally, he's got a secret relationship with Browns front-office financial exec Ali (Jennifer Garner) and she just told him she's pregnant.

DRAFT DAY juggles a lot of story for a film that takes place over just a 12-hour period, but it effectively portrays the hectic nature of the business world that exists behind the scenes of the NFL.  Sure, the script by Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman is completely formulaic in its structure, but director Ivan Reitman keeps the pace fast and the story compelling, even when the film has to stop and overexplain things for non-football fans, like the opening shot of the Space Needle accompanied by the caption "Seattle," a whoosh, and "home of the Seahawks." Though he's got a large supporting cast working under him (perhaps too large as Ellen Burstyn just seems to drop in for her few scenes as Sonny's mom, and a prominently-billed Sam Elliott has just one scene as a grumbly college coach), this is completely Costner's show, and enough time has gone by that we can forget about all the rumbling, bumbling, and stumbling he did in the mid '90s when, post-DANCES WITH WOLVES and THE BODYGUARD, hubris and bloated films like WATERWORLD and THE POSTMAN turned him into a punchline bordering on pariah.  Starting with 2003's OPEN RANGE, he very slowly started to rebuild his career and while there were a few missteps along the way (I'm still not convinced anyone in the world has actually seen SWING VOTE, including myself) and even a dumped-on-DVD horror movie (THE NEW DAUGHTER), he's turned in some excellent performances in underappreciated films like THE UPSIDE OF ANGER (2006) and MR. BROOKS (2007).  More recently, he did terrific work on the History Channel's HATFIELDS & MCCOYS miniseries and his performance as Pa Kent was one of the better things in the otherwise disappointing MAN OF STEEL.  He's got a likably laconic, almost Gary Cooper-like screen persona that, in the right movie, always gets you on his side.  DRAFT DAY isn't anywhere near the level of a BULL DURHAM or a FIELD OF DREAMS, but Costner, pushing 60, still has that screen presence that a genuine movie star never loses, and that's not something you see enough of these days. The DRAFT DAY Costner is the kind of actor who's smart enough to not worry about capturing a demographic, choosing instead to play mostly to an adult audience that's aged and matured with him, and some of his best years might actually still lie ahead if he chooses the right projects.  Yeah, it's comfort food to a certain extent, but it's entertaining, and when Costner's in his wheelhouse like this, he's awfully hard to dislike.

While it secured the cooperation and involvement of the NFL for maximum realism--including appearances by commissioner Roger Goodell and numerous on-air personalities like Chris Berman, Jon Gruden, and Mel Kiper, and even a brief bit by Browns legend Jim Brown--it's important to note, from the perspective of a die-hard NFL fan, just how deeply entrenched in the realm of wish-fulfillment fantasy DRAFT DAY can be.  While it gets the business and boardroom elements down, it's also a pipe dream of a movie that Cleveland-area sons and daughters will be giving their perpetually-disappointed Browns superfan dads on Father's Day for decades to come.  It's a love letter to the perpetually hapless, "This is our year!" Browns while acknowledging that the team's pursuit of a championship is largely futile.  As they are, the Browns are incapable of having anyone in their organization with as much draft day savvy as Sonny Weaver Jr.  Also, no promising college star entering the draft wants to play for Cleveland.  But perhaps most hilariously, in a plot point so utterly absured that it threatens to take the film into the realm of science fiction, DRAFT DAY insists on playing along with the myth that the Dallas Cowboys are a feared team that consistently wins championships.

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