Friday, April 11, 2014

Draft Day: Quite a fumble

Draft Day (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.11.14

I’ve no doubt that a compelling film could be spun from the suspense, acrimony, dashed hopes and back-room negotiating that lead up to the annual NFL draft, but scripters Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman didn’t find it.

With his job and the fate of his team hanging in the balance, Sonny (Kevin Costner,
center) debates the merits of a potential draft choice with league "capologist" Ali
(Jennifer Garner). Their discussion includes numerous pregnant pauses because,
well, Sonny and Ali also are An Item, and she's, well, pregnant. Just the sort of detail
one would expect from a football league war room, right?
Nor did director Ivan Reitman, who can’t seem to decide whether he’s making a mild farce or a straight drama. No surprise, since Reitman remains best known for his 1980s triple-play of Stripes, Ghostbusters and Twins. He’s not done so well of late, with a string of forgettable junk that includes Evolution and My Super Ex-Girlfriend.

But sports drama? Not even close. Reitman’s most mature and subtly pleasing effort remains 1993’s Dave, which owes its juice to Gary Ross’ superlative script and Kevin Kline’s sublime starring performance.

Draft Day has neither. Kevin Costner tries his best with this flimsy material, but his limited thespic range isn’t up to the subtlety demanded by his role. It’s pretty bad when we can’t tell the difference between Costner looking happy, looking worried or looking irritated. It’s all the same bland expression.

Comparisons to Moneyball are inevitable, since both films deal with the fine points of building a winning sports franchise. But that’s where the comparison ends; Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian wrote a genius script for Moneyball — working from a story by Stan Chervin, and a book by Michael Lewis — and the result was mesmerizing drama that drew much of its power from the clever way we were inserted into the action. Most crucially, Moneyball never talked down to its audience.

Rothman and Joseph, in great contrast, assume that we’re blithering idiots; their screenplay gracelessly spoon-feeds details in a way that becomes quite tiresome. (This project unbelievably topped Hollywood’s 2012 “Black List” of best unproduced scripts.) As we initially visit each of the football franchises involved with this story, a text card gives us the city, in bold type (CLEVELAND!), followed by a second card that identifies the team with the sort of breathless emphasis associated with screaming tabloid headlines (Home of the BROWNS!).

Actually, that’s not Reitman’s worst stylistic offense. He and cinematographer Eric Steelberg obviously adore their horizontal cross-fades, with one image sliding across the screen to intersect with another, sometimes allowing a foreground figure to “intrude” into the neighboring scene. It’s a slick trick, visually ... the first time. And the second. Maybe even the third.

By the 50th time, however, we’re well and truly sick of it. Camera gimmicks of this nature only succeed when they’re a) instrumental to the story; and b) employed sparingly. The finest example remains Haskell Wexler’s use of split screens in 1968’s original Thomas Crown Affair, a pinnacle seldom achieved since then. Steelberg’s technique here does absolutely nothing to advance the story; he’s merely showing off.

But Rothman and Joseph remain the prime offenders, for a fumble-footed script that relies much too heavily on dumb melodrama. Surely the tension of Draft Day itself would be enough to keep us occupied, but no; this one key day also happens to be when Browns general manager Sonny Weaver (Costner) learns that his girlfriend, Ali (Jennifer Garner), is pregnant.

Mind you, Ali isn’t just anybody; she also happens to be the Browns’ “capologist,” the front-office legal eagle who keeps an eye on the league salary cap. Ali rather clumsily tells us, at one point, that she has grown up with football in her blood: lives and breathes the game. Bearing that in mind, how likely is it that she’d choose this particular day to impart this particular piece of personal information to Sonny?

Naturally, Sonny and Ali are keeping their relationship a secret, for no reason other than the fact that the script says so. Further melodrama is provided by Sonny’s tempestuous relationship with his head coach, Vince Penn (Denis Leary); the two men distrust each other at best, loath each other at worst, each believing the other to be incompetent.

Let’s see ... what else? Sonny is operating under the broad shadow left by his father, who held the same job until just two years ago and remains much beloved by the team. Dear ol’ dad died just a week earlier, so emotions run high: even more so, since all of Cleveland still hasn’t forgiven Sonny for firing his own father from the coaching staff, (a plot hiccup that doesn’t make sense even after Sonny fully describes it to Ali, and thus to us, late in the game).

Oh, yes; I also can’t overlook the fact that Sonny’s secretary is absent for personal reasons, and thus has been replaced by a nerdy intern named Rick (Griffin Newman), who functions solely as idiotic comic relief. No offense to Newman, who does his best with thin material, but I’ve rarely seen such a useless character inserted so maladroitly, and then abused so pointlessly.

What the hell were all concerned thinking?

So: Sonny’s job is on the line, because his previous year’s golden boy, quarterback Brian Drew (Tom Welling), injured himself mid-season and failed to live up to potential. As a result, team owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) wants Sonny to “make a splash” with this year’s draft picks. All eyes are on the headline-making Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), a Wisconsin quarterback whose name is on everybody’s lips.

But in order to secure Callahan, Sonny must make a deal with the devil — in this case Tom Michaels (Patrick St. Esprit), his counterpart in Seattle (Home of the SEAHAWKS!) — by trading away his No. 1 picks for the next three years. It seems an idiotic offer, but Sonny accepts it nonetheless.

News immediately leaks, deeply upsetting Drew, who has worked hard between seasons, in order to become “the best he’s ever been.” Those disappointed also include Ray Jennings (Arian Foster), who wants to join the Browns as a legacy player, following in the footsteps of HIS daddy (Terry Crews); and Louisiana outside linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), who has two adorable nephews. (That’s character development, donchaknow.)

Mack also might have some insider knowledge suggesting that Callahan isn’t all that he’s reputed to be.

Callahan, Drew, Jennings and Mack. Let’s pause for a moment, and consider this: All the hundreds of young athletes who participate in Draft Day each year, all the potential side stories that could derive from introducing oh, say, at least a dozen of them — even if only briefly, in some cases — and our inept screenwriters limit themselves to these four. And only these four.

Which means, of course, that we can choreograph this film’s outcome, given the various good person/bad person auras assigned to each young player.

But apparently that isn’t a problem, because Reitman and casting director John Papsidera expect us dim-bulb viewers to be distracted by all the famous football folks who parade through the picture. Hey, looka there: It’s Jim Brown! Ray Lewis! Commissioner Roger Goodell! Wow, isn’t this movie authentic?

If only it were that simple.

The central relationship angst percolating between Sonny and Ali remains so distracting that we can’t really appreciate the finesse our hero employs, to secure precisely what he wants for his team. By the time we reach the crowd-pleasing climax — wow, what a plot twist; didn’t see that coming! — Reitman has squandered too many opportunities to build actual suspense. We simply don’t care.

Garner does reasonably well as the detail-oriented Ali; she is, at least, an intelligent and sympathetic character, and one suspects — as Garner plays her — that she’d be a better general manager than Sonny. Ellen Burstyn has a thankless role as Sonny’s mother, who also chooses this day to bug her son about giving dear ol’ dad a proper eulogy, as his ashes are scattered on the practice field. (Say what?) Rosanna Arquette shares this moment during an eyeblink cameo as Sonny’s ex-wife: another pointless character.

Leary actually should have been an excellent choice as Penn, but the actor is hamstrung by Reitman’s desire to obtain a family-friendly PG-13 rating. Few can match Leary in full-rant mode, and Penn’s tirades should be peppered with richly imaginative levels of profanity, but — alas — the character feels oddly emasculated. Another opportunity lost.

Sam Elliott is his crusty best as Callahan’s former coach, and Pat Healy is mildly amusing as Sonny’s inexperienced counterpart in Jacksonville, Fla. (Home of the JAGUARS!).

It’s sad, really. Much has been made of the NFL’s cooperation with this project: a rare move by a corporate entity that rarely dabbles in Hollywood. I can’t help wondering if this pact involved bad choices akin to the flawed decisions Sonny confronts in this story, and if NFL lawyers insisted on too many artistic concessions.

Whatever the reason, Draft Day is too dumbed-down to be enlightening, instructive or entertaining. Which begs the question: Why did everybody bother?

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