Movie review: ‘Draft Day’ isn’t playoff caliber

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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As movies go, Draft Day is the equivalent of an 8-8 NFL team. Maybe even a 7-9. It is sporadically interesting, and suggests that it is worth sticking around for the final play. But there’s no guarantee you will be satisfied with the outcome, and you will wonder at some of the decisions made along the way.

To be sure, the film is of considerable local interest because it focuses on the Browns, much of it was shot in and around Cleveland, and it has bits of local flavor. (When I was attending a screening, I listened to Tony Rizzo doing radio commentary in the movie while Rizzo himself was sitting in the row behind me.) It also includes plenty of real names and faces from the national sports world, among them Chris Berman, Deion Sanders and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

But these NFL and Browns characters occupy a parallel universe, one that acknowledges team history and frustrations in general ways but avoids getting too specific. A key plot point is that the Browns have a chance at a No. 1 draft pick, but the thinking about that decision does not consider what happened when the Browns had the first pick in the past. (Tim Couch, anyone? Courtney Brown? Too painful still?)

But this is still a Browns team that has long struggled. Owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) wants a big move. General manager Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) knows his job is on the line. New coach Vince Penn (Denis Leary) has ideas about how the team should be run — and those ideas are not always the same as Weaver’s. The team also has a veteran quarterback (Tom Welling) who worries about his future since the draft includes a top college QB.

That quarterback, Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), is the most attractive of the Browns candidates, but far from the only one. Weaver is also looking at Ray Jennings (Arian Foster), son of a former Browns player. And there’s Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), an Ohio State standout who is relentlessly seeking Weaver’s favor.

At the same time, Weaver has relationship issues to deal with, both with his salary-cap-expert paramour (Jennifer Garner) and his mother (Ellen Burstyn), who is among those still shocked that Weaver fired his now-dead father, who had been a beloved Browns coach. And far beyond Cleveland, others are making moves. Any action Weaver takes in order to get and use the first pick reverberates among other teams looking for draft-day magic.

All this should give the film a sense of urgency that is not always there. Costner’s Weaver is more of a thinker than a dynamo, and his interaction with other characters at times seems too cool for the situation. The script by Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, and the direction by Ivan Reitman, try to make this add up to something significant but it never proves to be more than moderately interesting. (The NFL, hostile to warts-and-all portrayals, may also have mandated a smoothing of some rough edges in exchange for its cooperation — so the movie seems blander than a month of real-life pro-football headlines would.)

The piling on of Weaver’s relationship issues distracts from the football maneuvers, and the football maneuvers keep the relationships from getting the attention they might have had in another movie. The characters and scenes feel ever more scattered, even when the focus is on the day of the draft itself.

That’s not to say the movie is entirely without merit. The story manages some intermittent suspense. And Boseman adds another fine performance to a resume that already includes playing Jackie Robinson in 42; his work here makes all the more intriguing his playing singer James Brown in the upcoming Get On Up.

More than once the movie made me think of Dave, the 1993 comedy-drama directed by Reitman and also featuring Langella. The script by Gary Ross, about a presidential impersonator who has to fill in for the man himself, started off amusing but became more meaningful as it went along, concerned with what politicians do and how ordinary citizens act. It’s still a little classic because of the way it balanced story and character, humor and seriousness. While Draft Day is more overtly dramatic, it nonetheless tries to achieve a balance reminiscent of Dave — and comes up short.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.


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