Any movie that engages its viewer on a topic he or she is normally not interested in is doing something right. And so, despite an array of plot contrivances and strained storytelling banalities around the periphery, "Draft Day" grew on me. Director Ivan Reitman (2011's "No Strings Attached
") and writers Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph aren't always entirely eloquent in their approach to the material, but they are knowledgeable, crafting a behind-the-scenes look at the strategic politics of professional sports that could work as an apropos companion piece to 2011's "Moneyball
." Anyone expecting a heap of action on the football field complete with crucial last-minute touchdowns and slow claps from the stands should look elsewhere; "Draft Day" is all about the people who make the decisions behind closed doors, and the equal parts stress and exhilaration that go into doing something they love.
For two years, Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) has slid into his late father's position as General Manager for the Cleveland Browns. With less than 13 hours remaining until the NFL's official 2014 draft picks begin, the pressure is on for Sonny to make the right choice and please the colleagues around him, from Browns owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) to Coach Vince Penn (Denis Leary). Will he go with University of Wisconsin hotshot Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), more earnest up-and-comer Ray Jennings (Arian Foster), or someone else? One wrong move, and he is well aware how easily he can be replaced. Throw in a girlfriend, team accountant Ali (Jennifer Garner), who has just announced she is pregnant, and a mother, Barb (Ellen Burstyn), who has picked this very date to memorialize her husband, and Sonny's hectic day of high highs and low lows is about to get very interesting, indeed.
Set predominately in the offices of the Browns Team Facility on a day that will decide the sports town's immediate future, "Draft Day" casts Kevin Costner (2014's "3 Days to Kill
") in a role that feels tailor-made for the veteran actor. A fitting successor to his work in 1988's "Bull Durham," 1989's "Field of Dreams" and 1996's "Tin Cup," Sonny Weaver Jr. is a compelling, no-nonsense protagonist, seasoned in his profession because of all the years he worked alongside his dad but also never more vulnerable than he currently is. Watching him moving and shaking and wheeling and dealing as he tries to figure out which new player will be right for his team could have been nothing but dry exposition in the wrong hands, but director Ivan Reitman ensures a compelling delivery that rises slowly yet surely in momentum.
The machinations of all the subplots surrounding Sonny's central conflict assist in giving depth to his character, but many of them are still very clearly labored. Ali's reveal that he is going to be a father on the eve of the most critical day of his career makes her initially come off as insensitivewould it have killed her to wait 24 hours?but she fortunately redeems herself later on by being a sympathetic ear for Sonny and responsive to his conflicted feelings about his profession and the idea of being a first-time parent. Less easy to overlook as anything but strained and manipulative is the arrival of Sonny's mom and ex-wife, Angie (Rosanna Arquette), who want him to spread his dad's ashes on the field little more than an hour before the official draft picks begin. There are smaller niggling problems throughout that stretch plausibilitywould Browns owner Anthony Molina really take Sonny to a closed water park just to deliver the groan-worthy pun, "I need you to make a splash," and who thought it was a good idea to involve Sonny and Ali in a "looking-contemplatively-in-the-restroom-mirror" montage?but these things fortunately take a backseat to the reality of the picture's specific milieu.
As Ali, who longs for Sonny to go public with their romance, Jennifer Garner (2013's "Dallas Buyers Club
") works exceptionally well with Costner, the two of them portraying a special bond over a limited time frame. The intelligence she brings to this part is critical in believing how passionate she is about her job and the game of football. Denis Leary (2012's "The Amazing Spider-Man
") lends a focused energy and determination to Coach Penn, who is not quite convinced Sonny is going to make the right choice, and Griffin Newman (2013's "Beneath
") gives an unassuming standout turn as intern Rick, still affably wet behind the ears about the cutthroat business he's found himself in. As Bo Callahan's manager, Chris Crawford, hip-hop-star-turned-producer Sean Combs hasn't had a major film role since 2001's "Monster's Ball
," but once again proves here that he is a talented enough actor to blend seamlessly with his co-stars when given the chance.
If "Draft Day" tries a little too hard to boost its concept with side stories best left on the sidelines, the film retains an easy, pleasant, comfortable aura that grows stronger as the finale approaches. The music score by John Debney (2013's "The Call
"), soaringly sentimental without becoming treacly, complements the patriotic pride of the sport as well as Sonny's journey of self-discovery. By the end, the movie is difficult to dislike and those who are not well-schooled in the ins and outs of the annual NFL draft procedure will feel like they have learned something in the process. On the whole, "Draft Day" gets some things right and others wrong, but there is no denying its victory in making palatable a movie about American football for those who only watch the Super Bowl for the commercials.