Ivan Reitman’s new comedy, "Draft Day," doesn’t exactly fumble the ball, but the director behind "Ghostbusters" and "Meatballs" -- who also has served as producer on more subtle fare such as "Up in the Air" -- certainly spends a lot of time and energy zigging and zagging on his way to a touchdown that never quite happens.
Kevin Costner (no stranger to the sports movie genre, though his earlier entries have tended to focus on baseball) plays Sonny Weaver, Jr., the general manager of the Cleveland Browns. (One of the film’s conceits is that it zooms around the country, paying visits to the various home stadiums of real football teams.) It’s "draft day," the day when NFL teams jockey and make deals behind the scenes before publicly announcing their draft picks. GMs like Weaver have a chance to energize their team’s fans base by picking hot new talent; young players looking to go pro have a chance for fame, glory, and -- depending how high up on the draft pick list they land -- pay checks that run to the mega-milllions.
Weaver’s under pressure from all sides. The team owner (layer by Frank Langella) wants a pick like the aristocratic Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), touted to be the next big thing on the field. Weaver himself is more a fan of Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman, another alum of baseball movies, namely last year’s Jackie Robinson biopic, "42"), an athlete from a working class background who takes to Twitter to press his campaign. Team Coach Penn (Denis Leary) feels that Weaver isn’t including him in the process; the team’s quarterback, Brian Drew (Tom Welling) fears that he’s about to be replaced; his mother (Ellen Burstyn) has chosen this day, of all days, to scatter his father’s ashes (on the field, of course); and a shy young intern keeps getting underfoot.
Oh, and then there’s the matter of his co-worker, Ali (Jennifer Garner), who is also Weaver’s girlfriend. The two of them have some serious talking to do, and they keep retreating to the storage closet for their heart to heart chats. There’s a lot about this movie that seems forced and tired, from Costner himself (isn’t he little too old to be playing the guy whom a tough and capable woman like Ali is trying to nail down?), and the recurring gag of the closet is only one irritating device; another is the steady succession of personal and family revelations that Weaver trots out, one after the next, to melt Ali’s heart and explain actions that look, to outsiders, heartless or bone-headed. There’s so much melodrama here that a better title might have been "Football Camp."
If the storyline, with it myriad of characters, cameos (Sam Elliott appears for one scene; Rosanna Arquette for another) didn’t make the film feel over-stuffed, Reitman adopts a visual style that drives it right over the edge. Again and again, as characters converse on the phone, Reitman’s split-screen spills from one setting into the other; at one juncture, a character walks right out of his half of the screen and across the scene where, in another location, a meeting is underway. A sports movie that takes the form of a succession of heated one-to-ones and conference calls is hard to justify in the sense that it’s not living up to the physical rush of athletics, and this technique lends the film some dynamism, but it also tends to take the viewer out of the experience. Worse, it can be visually confusing and make an unnecessary jumble out of scenes that ought to be cleanly delineated.
Garner’s character possesses some real chops: At one point, after Costner and Penn get into a scrap that involves a small fire, Ali -- after dousing the blaze -- offers the guys some coffee. Distracted, they accept her offer, at which point she underscores the point she’s making: "I’m not getting you idiots anything." But aside from a few moments when she gets to show she’s as much a force to be reckoned with as any of the males in the club house, Garner is relegated to the gender-stereotype conforming role of the supportive female, who always has her man’s back even as she’s lending him her sympathetic ear.
The story’s athletes play only tiny roles. We get a glimpse of Vonae Mack’s hunger and simmering sense of injustice at the prospect -- which seems ever more likely -- of being passed over for a coveted Number One spot on the draft pick list, and we see Callahan as little more than an entitled, insincere, and (possibly) unpopular-in-the-locker-room brat. We even see Browns’ QB Drew’s terror and fury at the idea that he might be bumped. All this is potentially meaty stuff, but it’s used as filler. Even Leary’s deadpan rants have a warmed-over quality.
The real heat emanates from the back-room wheeling and dealing, which takes us from city to city in a whooshing, graphics-laden tour of some of the NFL’s teams, but there’s a cartoonish patina to the project that leaches away substance and drama. It’s as though the idea were to leave the hard hits on the field of play and not jolt the box of popcorn out of anyone’s hands. The result falls somewhere between "Monday Night Football" and "The Young and the Restless."