Ivan Reitman has always worked best with a charismatic front man. Back when he had Bill Murray star in his films (Ghostbusters, Stripes, Meatballs), sloppy timing and bantamweight premises were part of the charm: There are worse directorial strategies than “get out of Murray’s way and let him do his magic.” But such an approach falters when, say, a lumbering Arnold Schwarzenegger is the star (Kindergarten Cop). And though Kevin Costner could have been the right guy to work with Reitman during the actor’s Bull Durham era, these days his famous lopsided smile has been supplanted by an omnipresent scowl. And that does not a good Reitman movie make.
Draft Day boasts a certain charm anyway — if only because its real star is football, a game with enough appeal to go around. Costner is Sonny Weaver Jr., a fictional Cleveland Browns’ general manager, and you can blame his petulant expression on the bear of a day he’s having. His father, the team’s former coach, whom he fired the year before, has just died; his mom (Ellen Burstyn) won’t get off his back; and his girlfriend, salary cap manager Ali (Jennifer Garner, wearing an identical scowl), has just announced she’s pregnant with presumably the world’s most scowl-y baby. To top it off, it’s draft day and the pressure is on, since Sonny’s current team has more stick-to-itiveness than power players. When Browns owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) announces it’s time “to make a splash” or, ahem, get off the pot, Sonny makes a Hail Mary trade with the cash-poor Seattle Seahawks: their No. 1 first round pick in exchange for the Brown’s first draft picks for the next three years. A splash is made, after which Sonny panics and nobody but Anthony is happy.
The obvious pick is Heisman-winning quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), but something about him seems too good to be true. The Browns’ new coach (Denis Leary, who looks more like the Joker every year) is peeved he’s been getting shut out. Current QB Brian Drew (Tom Welling) is apoplectic that he may get bumped. The team could use running back Ray Jennings (Arian Foster), but he’s run into some legal troubles, and Sonny’s original pick, linebacker Vontae Mack (42’s Chadwick Boseman), would render the trade moot. As the clock ticks down — the film takes place over the course of one day — Sonny hunts down Bo’s hidden deal breaker, wheels and deals in telephone call after telephone call, and corners Ali in supply closets for … navel-gazing therapy sessions. Turns out a scowl does not a romantic chemistry make, either.
By now it’s old hat to bemoan the ever-increasing age gap between male stars and their romantic leads, but Costner and Garner really do interact less like lovers and more like a father and his favorite daughter. With her ramrod posture and unwavering, rapt gaze, Garner always seems like the perfect daddy’s girl, anyway. Costner comes more alive in his scenes with Burstyn, who is nearly as close to his age and who at least ratchets up Sonny’s pulse whenever she stalks into a room.
Thanks goodness something does. First-time screenwriters Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph careen between bursts of arcane football lingo and hyper-exposition for those of us who don’t know from 4,000-yard lines (that’s a thing, right?), and they overstate their case with a redundancy that isn’t excused by the knowing winks built into the script. Although he radiates a comforting solidity, deadpan Kevin is not the right guy to anchor such material. In that signature monotone that worked wonders when he was still the prettiest boy on the block, he drones as if he’s reading a dirge.
Reitman enlivens things with a bevy of split-screen gimmicks and onscreen graphics, and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t overcompensate with the bombastic soundtrack, lickety-split edits and nonstop crescendo that’s de rigueur for football flicks. Too bad he defaults instead to dopey pacing and dull, overlit NFL interiors. (They look like sitcom sets.) The terrific supporting cast also helps. Too many subplots may abound — an initially funny gag with a nervous intern gets revisited at least three times too many — but cameos from the likes of Sam Elliott and Pat Healy elicit aha after aha. Real-life sports figures dot the landscape, among them the great Jim Brown and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Langella bares great gleaming fangs as he bellows in board rooms and grins in TV interviews. Leary throws out one-liners with the glee that evades Costner. Boseman’s fervency heightens the emotional stakes, and, as Bo’s super-agent, Sean Combs brandishes that comic gusto that gave the Russell Brand vehicle Get Him to the Greek more than one trick.
But it’s not just the supporting players who lend Draft Day its appeal. Around the point when Sonny’s deals go south, it kicks into high gear, and I found myself rooting for him, and for the movie, flaws and all. This, despite the fact that I view football as the worst of the professional sports corporations. Or maybe I found myself rooting for him precisely because I do believe that. Sonny is a David attempting to save his team and legacy from the Goliath that has become Slick-Rick pro ball. Schmaltzy stuff, sure, but schmaltz can be grand if it earns its keep, and, in a carefully layered second half, this film does. Reitman may have his drawbacks but no one has ever accused his films of lacking heart. With sports movies especially, ya gotta have heart.