Ivan Reitman is one of those filmmakers I always root for despite knowing better. Anyone whose last few movies include the likes of ‘My Super Ex-Girlfriend’ and ‘No Strings Attached’ should be approached with a certain amount of trepidation. At the same time, the guy made ‘Ghostbusters’ (I repeat, ‘Ghostbusters’), so you can never entirely write him off. Having seen his new film ‘Draft Day’, it’s a pleasure to announce that the movie is not a disaster, but it’s also a mild disappointment to announce its inevitable mediocrity.
Likewise, there was a time when the release of a sports movie starring Kevin Costner was a cause for celebration. Unfortunately, that time was the ’80s and also the same decade when Ivan Reitman stopped being dependable. ‘Draft Day’ opens on screens this week as a blast from the past that only theoretically should offer any sense of excitement for viewers. (One of the worst Photoshopped posters in history certainly doesn’t do the movie any favors either.)
For non-sports fans (and presumably there should be plenty of those on High-Def Digest), Draft Day is one of the most overhyped and overplayed events in the NFL. It’s the time when college football stars get giant checks to transition into the pro ranks in an overblown ceremony filled with manufactured drama.
Kevin Costner stars as the Cleveland Browns general manager with some big decisions to make that will hopefully redefine his team. He wakes up in the morning unsure whether to follow his gut and draft an underrated player he believes in or a Browns legacy who deserves the first round attention, contract, bells and whistles. To make things even more complicated, he’s offered an insane trade early in the morning, which would give him the top spot in the draft to take a hyped superstar college quarterback that everyone wants. He gives up his next three first round picks for the honor. Even though the media goes nuts, he can’t decide if he’s made the right decision.
To make matters worse, it’s clear that the team’s crotchety owner Frank Langella arranged the deal behind his back. His coach Denis Leary is all kinds of pissed off about the unexpected move, his domineering mother Ellen Burstyn criticizes everything he does, and his secret office girlfriend Jennifer Garner just announced that she’s pregnant. Whew! That’s a lot of stakes. As the constant onscreen clock counting down to the draft suggests, those stakes will only get higher.
The movie that ‘Draft Day’ clearly wants to be is ‘Moneyball’. Everyone behind the film tries hard to turn the backstage sports dramedy into a genre, and given the fast-talking, underdog nature of said potential genre, it’s not a terrible idea. The trouble is that ‘Draft Day’ doesn’t have a script even remotely on the level of ‘Moneyball’. This isn’t based on a true story. It isn’t even a particularly believable story. It’s just a bunch of guys in suits trying to turn turgid dialogue into Aaron Sorkin-style quips, and a sports movie that barely conceals the fact that it’s saving massive amounts of money by not including any sequences of said sport.
On top of those fundamental problems, there’s the undeniable crushing flaw that every scene in the movie that doesn’t involve movie stars pretending to be sports experts plays as particularly cheesy melodrama. Sadly, Jennifer Gardner has moved out of the ass-whooping lady hero phase of her career into the bland supporting girlfriend phase that all Hollywood actresses get trapped in eventually. Her character, as well as Burstyn’s, are there purely to provide emotional content and someone for Costner to fire exposition towards. It’s all distractingly stock stuff, and the typically conventional Reitman makes it worse by using the most excessive and distracting split-screen editing since Ang Lee’s ‘Hulk’. It’s as if he wanted to prove to his son that more than one Reitman in the family has a grasp of cinematic style, but didn’t decide to do so until he started editing his latest limp picture.
‘Draft Day’ is a flawed and lumpy movie. Thankfully, it’s not a total loss. Somewhere in the midst of going through the motions, Reitman decided to add some spark. As the film revs up toward a ridiculous climax, some of his old character comedy skills spill out. Provided you can suspend disbelief during Costner’s climatic explosion wheeling and dealing that could never possibly happen, ‘Draft Day’ turns into an amusing sports comedy that rather effectively mixes on-the-clock suspense with rat-a-tat dialogue and fun characterization. Leary, Langella and Costner finally break out of their shells to deliver the type of work that made them stars. Pat Healy shows up in a wonderful cameo to continue his quest to become the millennial Steve Buscemi, and Reitman reminds us that he was once capable of mixing a variety of acting styles into a single cohesive comedic tone.
This might all be too little too late to save the tiresome movie from itself, but at least it has a 30-minute stretch that reminds audiences why this star and director were once amongst the most powerful names in Hollywood. Now, if only they could pull that off for an entire movie. Maybe that’s too much to ask, but it sure would be nice. These guys were great once, and hopefully some of their talent, drive and skill are still in there buried beneath decades of compromise.