Draft Day (★★★½)

draft_dayI’m a real sucker for the NFL Draft. The annual event has to be boring as all hell for anyone not obsessed with it, but for someone like me (and I suspect my colleague Mark Johnson feels similarly), it’s a must watch. So, I went into Draft Day with a mix of anticipation and trepidation. Luckily, Ivan Reitman‘s film is fantastically entertaining and moreover will appeal just as strongly to folks like Mark and myself as it will to audiences who wouldn’t know the difference between the NFL Draft and a draft beer. Certainly, putting sports movie legend Kevin Costner in the lead role was a coup, as he projects that same charisma and masculinity off the field and in the front office as he did while portraying athletes. Reitman also has a real strong script on his hands from Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, so the bones were there for a solid flick. Even if some of the secondary characters are a bit underwritten (cough, Jennifer Garner, cough), the cast all still pull off strong  and charismatic performances, shielding that issue somewhat. Draft Day was always going to be right up my alley, so I’m thrilled to report that not only did it satisfy me in a big way, it’s very likely to satisfy you all as well…

It’s the day of the NFL Draft and Cleveland Browns General Manager Sonny Weaver Jr. (Costner) is feeling the squeeze. His team had a disappointing season last year, so changes are in store for the Browns. Shiny new coach (Denis Leary) wants the team to draft running back Ray Jennings (real life NFL player Arian Foster), while his owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) wants him to make a splash by trading for the number one pick in the draft and choosing stud quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence). Sonny, well he seems to love linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), but that becomes moot when he overpays for the first pick. With Callahan seemingly the slam dunk, Sonny begins desperately trying to figure out if he’s the guy for the franchise or not, while contending with numerous other crises. His current quarterback Brian Drew (Tom Welling) is rehabbing an injury and feels discarded, his salary cap guru (Garner) wants him to admit that they’re an item, and his mother (Ellen Burstyn) wants to scatter his father’s ashes (the former coach of the Browns) today, of all days. As the clock ticks, Sonny tries to stick to his guns and do what he knows is right for the franchise, leading to a rather thrilling climax while the draft is underway and they’re on the clock.

draft-day-kevin-costner-jennifer-garner-1-600x398Sports movies usually need at least one good performance to succeed, and luckily this one has multiple strong performances. Leading the way though is Kevin Costner, who’s really quite perfect for this role. You completely buy him as a GM, both relatable to players and the rest of the front office. Costner is able to project this hidden cool beneath all of the chaos, making him a true leading man, albeit in an unlikely place for that sort of thing. I’d argue that this is the best that Costner has been in a while. The rest of the cast has to make a lot out of only a little screen time, with only Jennifer Garner and Denis Leary really getting multiple scenes. Both of their parts are one dimensional and underwritten, but Garner and Leary save their characters by injecting tons of personality into them. Chadwick Boseman is underserved as well, but he comes off as a real draft prospect, and that’s a credit to him. Frank Langella almost just has a cameo (and Ellen Burstyn really only has one), while Josh Pence and Tom Welling mostly need to only look like quarterbacks. The rest of the cast is filled out by the likes of the aforementioned Foster as well as Rosanna Arquette, Sean Combs, Terry Crews, Kevin Dunn, Sam Elliot, Brad William Hanke, Timothy Simons, and a host of other football cameos. It’s all about Costner though, and rightly so.

Ivan Reitman usually has just stuck to comedy throughout his distinguished career, and while this is one is a rare drama for him, it’s also full of humor as well. Some of that credit likely has to go to scribes Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, but I’m sure Reitman had something to do with it as well. Joseph and Rothman topped the Black List recently for this script, and I can see why, as it does such a good job making this more than just a run of the mill sports flick. They get all of the essential information about this event out to you in a clever way, so that you never feel left out if you’re not a draft guru and don’t feel talked down to if you are one. Reitman directs his cast well (Draft Day is easily his best outing as a filmmaking in quite a while), while keeping things moving along at a brisk pace and everyone involved really invests you in the outcome of the first round of the draft. When the Browns are on the clock, you really care what happens and who they pick. By the end of the film, some might even stand up and cheer.

I really enjoyed Draft Day in a big way, not just as a sports movie, but as a crisp bit of entertainment as well, almost like a thriller of sorts. Football fans should go bonkers over this one, and anyone who enjoys a tightly told story should as well. Costner is great and the plot itself is super strong, so there’s tons to like here, regardless of your thoughts on the Cleveland Browns. Draft Day is a winner for me and one of the best of the first half of 2014 so far. Give it a look and it could turn out to be a winner for you as well, especially if you live in Ohio (aside from Cincinnati residents, perhaps). This is one not to miss…

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!