Brisk, bright, and appealing, and possessed of a snappy screenplay, Ivan Reitman’s newest film is an energetic and hilarious delight that may be one of the funniest of the year.
The miracle of Ivan Reitman’s Draft Day is that it takes something completely esoteric about the universe of organized football – the backstage dealings surrounding the yearly player draft – and turns it into one of the more compelling, funny films I have seen in a long while. I have always admired shoptalk in movies (that is: when characters casually chat about something abstruse, something only well-known to them, without explaining it to the audience. This lets the audience figure it out for themselves), and Draft Day is gleefully ensconced in a language that is totally alien to anyone but the most passionate of football fans. This is a film that is about telephone calls and back hall deals, all set in boring office blocks, and yet manages to have a sparkle of wit, a crackle of fun dialogue, and likable characters that you understand.
Kevin Costner plays Sonny Weaver, Jr., a man in charge of recruiting college football players for the Cleveland Browns. The NFL draft is mere hours away, and he is facing stress from all sides. Players are calling him asking to be drafted. Other teams are dangling their choice picks in front of him, offering to hand them over in exchange for picks in future drafts). And, to top it all off, his secret girlfriend and co-worker Ali (Jennifer Garner) is pregnant. Oh yes, and his father, also a football muckity-muck, died a few weeks previous, and he has a football legacy to live up to. A rival team is dangling a star player in front of Sonny, a star who may be the perfect player to define this year’s draft, but about whom Sonny feels uneasy. Is there something secretly wrong with this star player? Whom to draft in his place? How to deal with the angry coach (Denis Leary), the browbeating team owner (Frank Langella), and the doting family (Ellen Burstyn and Rosanna Arquette)?
And while the plot is about the many obscure details of the modern-day multimillion-dollar football business (details that will, I assure you, be clear by the film’s end), the real heart of the film is that passion, a love of the game, and a need to live up to your previous generation’s ideals will win out in the end. It’s a film that, like the best of Capra’s movies, argues that heart will always win over money, graft, and cynicism. This is, subtly enough, a profoundly hopeful film. It’s about the humanity that exists in the world of big money, a face we often forget to consider.
Although to temper this praise, Draft Day plays more like a fluffy comedy than a moving Capra-esque drama. More than anything, you’ll just enjoy the fun the characters are having, the brisk camera movements, and the compelling filmmaking techniques employed to make telephone conversations more interesting; Reitman films most of the phone conversations in an ever-shifting split-screen, and characters wander in and out of their own frame, often occupying the same space as the person they’re talking to. This adds an element of panache and life to otherwise dry material. It’s a jauntier version of Moneyball. Interestingly, Draft Day is a film that romanticizes football – and all the halcyon camaraderie therein – without having any actual playing of the game.
And the cast is terrific. Costner has reached a kind of elder statesman status in his career, and his natural on-screen authority cannot be denied. Denis Leary seems at ease as a bitter coach, and we have the likes of Burstyn, Langella, Arquette, Terry Crews, Sean Combs, and Sam Elliott to keep our eyes perky.
I’m not much of a football guy – the only sporting event I really follow is the Olympic Games – but Draft Day, with all its weird details about the game that I had previously never understood, was still a thrill to watch. Reitman’s recent directorial output has been a bit spotty (Evolution was a good-natured mess, My Super Ex-Girlfriend was totally bland, and No Strings Attached wasn’t wholly notable), making Draft Day is his best in years.
Rating: 4.5 Burritos