Managing a NFL team is like organizing Thanksgiving dinner, according to the comfortably square sports drama “Draft Day”: it’s all about making sure the young men get along and letting that one needlessly snippy uncle know he’s being heard. The gift and the curse of being manager is the responsibility of deciding who belongs at the table — and who does not.
As General Manager of the Cleveland Browns, Sonny Weaver (a somber, no-fun Kevin Costner) knows his post-industrial home team needs a win, but it needs a dad even more. Having recently buried his own father and facing an unexpected pregnancy with girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner), he’s already burdened by his own daddy issues.
But both of those concerns take a back seat on NFL draft day, when Sonny and his peers recruit promising college players into the major league. With the fates of four young players in his hands, the Browns manager can’t resist his paternal inclinations, even though negotiating happy endings for everyone looks like an impossibility.
Though the film begins just a handful of hours before draft day events begin, veteran comedy director Ivan Reitman and writers Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman smartly dramatize Sonny’s plight not with a clock, but with a question. Early that morning, he’s offered a star quarterback player in Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), and the engaging procedural that makes up the best part of “Draft Day” asks why the Seattle Seahawks, who get the first pick, are suddenly willing to part with him.
After agreeing to choose Bo, Sonny has his underlings comb through the player’s life — his grades, the recommendations from his Wisconsin State coach, photos of the parties he attended — to figure out what’s wrong with him. The thoroughness of the search is a little creepy, but the film elides that by presenting several compelling explanations as to what’s wrong with him.
While Sonny figures out his second-round pick, his wavering feelings about Bo lead to rippling reactions from his Browns colleagues, including patrician team owner Harvey (Frank Langella), ornery Head Coach Penn (Denis Leary), current quarterback Brian (Tom Welling), and charismatic college player Vontae (scene-stealer Chadwick Boseman).
Though none of the characters are anything more than types, it’s fun to see each character react to Sonny’s many hesitations and take-backs. All the while, Garner stands by as a teddy bear in a pantsuit and earrings, ready with a comforting word.
The truth about Bo warrants all the effort put into its discovery, and Sonny’s strenuous efforts to find a home for everybody offers a modest, reliable satisfaction, like putting away the groceries in the right cabinet, drawer, and shelf. But then we’re back to sorrowful Sonny and his troubles, including his mother (a wasted Ellen Burstyn), who seemingly knows everything there is to know about football except that she shouldn’t insistently remind her son of his dead father’s last wishes on one of the most important days of his career.
It’s a downer of a subplot that weighs down the film without offering much gravitas in return. Like Sonny’s eventual embrace of (biological) fatherhood, there’s merely a delay, rather than depth or complexity between problem and resolution.
“Draft Day,” then, is about as daring as a pair of dad jeans – and just as ugly. Though it features postcard-ready vistas of several cities and their football stadiums (whose architectural virtues are readily visible when emptied of people and garbage), Reitman’s film is about as ugly as a slick studio picture can be, thanks to a split-screen trick has characters bleeding over into each others’ frames.
Sonny shoulders his way into others’ scenes, and the clash in scale, lighting, and palette make for a cut-and-paste collage effect that’s distractingly hideous. It’s not just a failed experiment — it very nearly reduces “Draft Day” into amateur hour. Fortunately, the pros on screen manage to turn that visual fiasco into a mere fumble.