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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Denis Leary, Frank Langella and Kevin Costner star in "Draft Day," now playing.

"Draft Day" is a nice football movie for people who don't like football


In "Draft Day," the Seattle Seahawks have the number one pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. For any football fan, this is a fairly ridiculous starting point – after all, they just won the Super Bowl – as well as the first clue that the following two hours are not really for them.

No, the NFL-themed dramatic comedy is here for the casual fans, the people who watch the Super Bowl exclusively for the ads, think fantasy football involves wizard Tom Brady hopping on a dragon to fight the Indianapolis Orcs and – most concerning to the league – sure have heard a lot lately about concussions, players committing suicide, labor issues, bullying and murder charges.

The shield very rarely hands out its rights to Hollywood, so it's telling that it's fully in action here. All the teams' actual logos are stapled across the film, the movie was given permission to film at last year's draft and commissioner Roger Goodell has a speaking role. Even when the movie's first real joke is an amusing potshot at the sad, desperate state of the Cleveland Browns, the script makes sure to double back with a minute-long tribute to the town's heroically loyal fans. After all, don't want to upset the constituents (though if any fan base deserves a cinematic pick-me-up, it's Cleveland).

Make no mistake: "Draft Day" is an ad, less for the NFL Draft – though it is conveniently coming up in just a month – and more for the league itself. It's a hopeful attempt to get people to mindlessly consume a sport that's becoming more and more difficult to mindlessly consume. The mildly impressive thing is that, under "Ghostbusters" helmer Ivan Reitman's eye, the light, fluffy football trifle goes down almost as easily as designed.

A good first step to pulling off this is getting the always affable Kevin Costner, America's favorite Hollywood paternal figure – perhaps second only to Tom Hanks – in the lead. Here, he plays Browns GM Sonny Weaver Jr., stuck with the seventh pick after yet another losing season. After an audacious, potentially ill-advised trade with the Seahawks, however, Sonny lands the number one pick.

The obvious selection, according to the various cameo-ing NFL talking heads and Sonny's overbearing Al Davis-meets-Jerry Jones owner (Frank Langella), is stud Wisconsin QB Bo Callahan (Josh Pence, the unseen Winklevoss body double in "The Social Network").

Sonny is less convinced. He already believes he has his quarterback in the recently injured but supposedly top-form Brian Drew (Tom Welling), and he's been chatting up two other potentially terrific but red-flagged draft picks, linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman, soon to be James Brown in "Get on Up") and running back Ray Jennings (real life Texans running back Arian Foster). But is either player worth passing up seemingly sure-bet Callahan with their new number one pick? And which selection will appease his hotheaded coach (Denis Leary), who's not particularly pumped Sonny's trade lost him two years of first round picks?

On paper, "Draft Day" sounds like a gridiron cousin to Bennett Miller's Oscar-nominated "Moneyball." After all, the real life NFL Draft is nothing but chewing through stats, tape and potential. Unfortunately, the script from Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph plays more like Diet Caffeine Free "Moneyball," lacking its spiritual predecessor's intelligence or sharpness.

Part of what makes the NFL Draft interesting and dramatic – other than wondering if a drunken fan will pop off Mel Kiper's hair like the Lego piece it clearly looks like – is its inherent, fickle risk. Rothman and Joseph's script, however, keeps taking the complexity out of the Sonny's tight situation, making each choice more predictable and obvious. From merely the players' introductions – while Callahan is introduced basking in a luxurious hotel room, carefully coached and monitored by his agent (Sean "P. Diddy" Combs), Jennings and Mack are introduced as devoted family men – it's clear who the "right" choices will end up being.

As it goes on, "Draft Day" only goes further down its predictable direction, revealing seemingly glaring athletic and character attributes and flaws that are, of course, only to be uncovered and considered by our everyman football sensei protagonist. Instead of a movie about complex, difficult decisions, it transforms into a story about generically simplistic ones.

The script's complications instead come in the form of tedious personal dramas for Sonny to cope with, along with his increasingly frustrated staff. His secret girlfriend and team accountant Ali Parker (Jennifer Garner, whose chemistry with Costner is more daughter than lover) is pregnant, news Sonny is too distracted to really digest.

Meanwhile, his insistent mother (Ellen Burstyn) is marching around Browns headquarters with the mission of spreading around some guilt trips, as well as the ashes of Sonny's once distant, now deceased father – a legendary Cleveland coach that Sonny fired for emotionally convenient, logically dubious reasons – on the team practice field.

These subplots, complete with a catty ex-wife who's barely introduced much less worth mentioning, are more artificial clutter than compelling. However, unlike the similarly fake sports-themed heart-warmer "Trouble With the Curve," "Draft Day" manages to keep all of the material just on the right side of dopey crowd-pleasing.

Other than a few odd choices – a scene inexplicably set at a closed water park for no other reason than for the sake of a cheap conversational metaphor, for instance – Reitman has a fittingly light touch for the comedy, the performances and the inherent tension of high stakes backroom decisions being made against the clock. While Costner and Reitman are nicely in their easy-going comfort zones, the editors work overtime, using all sorts of moving, overlapping split-screens to bring a welcome dash of energy and almost comic book visual pop to a movie comprised mostly of office meetings and phone calls.

The end product is harmlessly pleasant and safe (though the script does make strong use of the lone f-word its PG-13 rating allows). And that's likely just what the NFL had in mind when they handed over draft access and logos, which return the favor by adding a layer of authenticity to "Draft Day" – even when what's happening in the story is about as authentic as a Packer helmet autographed by "Bart Farve."

For football fans, there will be frustratingly plenty to sic their inner Monday morning GMs upon – namely in the final act, in which Sonny's plan to undo his previous incompetence mostly involves other teams' somehow greater incompetence. Nitpicking the implausible, however, ends up being futile in what really amounts to a fantasy film, one that envisions a league where the choices are easy, everyone's a winner and the Cleveland Browns organization isn't completely inept. As far as fantasies go, that's up there with "Lord of the Rings."



Theaters and showtimes for Draft Day
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