Is the NFL draft really that big a deal? I mean, in comparison to the Super Bowl, the World Series, or the Apocalypse? It’s a big deal for the NFL and ESPN, no doubt, and “Draft Day” serves as 110 minutes of product placement for both. The league’s logo, underscored by the stentorian hype of Chris Berman, pops up almost as frequently as do the cellphones and multi-screen formats in veteran director Ivan Reitman’s attempt to squeeze comedy and drama from what is essentially a crass exercise in capitalism.
With the hours to draft day ticking away (the time remaining periodically appears on screen a-la “24”; it does not add suspense), fictional Cleveland Browns general manager Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) faces some tough decisions. He wants to emerge from the shadow of his late dad, the revered former GM, and field a winning team of his own. But the team’s meddlesome owner (Frank Langella) insists he pick the number one prospect, Heisman trophy-winning quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), who seems too good to be true. Weaver’s arrogant new head coach (Denis Leary) wants him to keep their present quarterback and pick a defensive player, like linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman). Then there’s Ray Jennings (real-life running back Arian Foster of the Houston Texans), the son of a former Browns’ player; he’s loaded with talent but lacking in maturity. Meanwhile, other GMs circle Weaver to exploit his dilemma and get a good deal. Not the best day for his mother (Ellen Burstyn) to nag him about spreading dad’s ashes on the practice field, or his assistant and secret squeeze Ali (Jennifer Garner) to announce she’s pregnant.
Yes, this movie has a lot going on, but almost all of it is literally phoned in, with Weaver constantly on the horn with agents, players, other managers, his boss, and his mother. Reitman tries to spice it up with fancy footwork involving split screens, but it just emphasizes the inertia. And for real excitement he inserts archival clips of legendary NFL moments and iconic players, so that at times the film seems like a highlight reel interrupted by a forgettable movie.
In concept, “Draft Day” is the football version of “Moneyball,” except with potentially more audience appeal. Weaver makes decisions based on gut instinct rather than the ruthless statistics that triumphed in the other, Oscar-nominated, earlier film. But Costner is no Brad Pitt (in this movie, he’s not even Kevin Costner), nor does he have dialogue written by Aaron Sorkin. Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman’s script has all the spark and originality of a postgame player interview — not even a thespian like Langella can do much with lines like “Make a splash. Fans like to get wet.”
Fans would also like to have seen more of the vintage Costner. More than any other actor, he has made the sports genre his own, starring in half a dozen bench-mark examples, including two of the best baseball movies ever made, “Bull Durham” and “For Love of the Game.” In the latter he plays a crafty old pitcher near the end of his career, who musters just enough spirit and skill to take his team to the top. In “Draft Day,” he more resembles that once great veteran who stuck around one season too long.