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REVIEW

Draft Day

By Karen Martin

This article was published April 11, 2014 at 2:25 a.m.

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Cleveland Browns head coach Vince Penn (Denis Leary) faces off with general manager Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) in Draft Day, Ivan Reitman’s sports dramedy about the NFL draft.

Draft Day is not about playing football. It’s about who plays football. And where.

Those hoping for muscular big screen gridiron battles won’t find them in Draft Day. Instead, there’s high-stakes chess playing involving strategy, second-guessing, costly blunders, and some surprising last-minute moves, enacted with college football players as pawns.The result is a smartly conceived film capable of engaging viewers who don’t know one end zone from the other. And the decently written screenplay more than compensates for the lack of brute on-field physicality.

Kevin Costner leads the charge as Sonny Weaver Jr., general manager of the Cleveland Browns (the new team that’s still taking shape after the old team got shipped off to Baltimore). Two years into the job, he’s trying to build a winning lineup with the help of the all-important college draft.

This year’s draft hottie is Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), a quarterback from the University of Wisconsin. Everybody wants Bo, including Weaver, who’s desperate enough to make a painful deal to get the No. 1 draft choice from the Seattle Seahawks’ wily GM Tom Michaels (Patrick St. Esprit).

Sonny is leaning toward less glamorous players that will fill gaps in his lineup. But he has to contend with Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), the magnificently imperious owner of the Browns, who wants to give Browns fans a recognizable star to keep ’em coming to the games. “Defense doesn’t make a splash,” he explains to his general manager. “People like to get wet.”

The film takes place over the course of said draft day, with a countdown clock often clicking on screen. Most of the action happens on telephones, and nobody seems to remember that it’s polite to say “goodbye” when a conversation concludes - they just hang up and exhibit appropriate expressions of disgust, triumph, frustration or anticipation. Effective use of split screens and wipes keeps each of the communicators onscreen.

Denis Leary plays, as usual, a snarky, mouthy and defiant character in Coach Penn, who comes to the Browns after a Super Bowl win and immediately butts heads with the suitably gruff GM who, unlike many of Costner’s film characters, isn’t all that charming. It doesn’t help that Weaver’s dad, beloved longtime Browns coach Sonny Senior, died the week before the draft.

Costner has never been much of a romantic lead (he was intriguing in Bull Durham, but that was in 1988), and botches that job here with zero chemistry between him and Jennifer Garner as Ali, the team’s sexy, smart and football-crazy salary caps manager. The two, who are carrying on what they think is a secret romance, spend much of draft day scurrying into storerooms to furtively argue about a game-changing predicament in their relationship. Despite looking gorgeous in a fitted short-skirted suit and five inch heels (a time span of one day saves the filmmakers a lot on wardrobe changes), Ali isn’t making progress in her discussions with Weaver. So whenever those scenes go nowhere, the story veers in another direction, such as Weaver’s contentious relationship with his mother Barb (Ellen Burstyn), then returns to the drama of the draft, which is much more interesting.

The film, shot mostly in Cleveland, has a hard-edged,contemporary look courtesy of director of photography Eric Steelberg, with gleaming aerial views of skylines and stadiums in Seattle, Cleveland, Houston, Kansas City and Buffalo.

The payoff - one that’s surprising as well as satisfying - comes when the clock runs out and the action moves to the actual draft at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. That’s where viewers are rewarded with an exciting sequence helped out with cameos by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and players including James Brewer, Stephen Hill, Demario Davis, Ramses Barden and Zoltan Mesko.Appearing as themselves are ESPN’s Chris Berman, Jon Gruden and Mel Kiper and NFL Network’s Deion Sanders, Mike Mayock and Rich Eisen.

That’s a lot of professional-sports brain power. But even they can’t figure out who’s going to be the winner in this big-time gamble.

Draft Day 88 Cast: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Ellen Burstyn, Frank Langella, Denis Leary, Terry Crews, Josh Pence, Chadwick Boseman, Patrick St. Esprit, Tom Welling, Sam Elliott, Rosanna Arquette, Sean Combs Director: Ivan Reitman Rating: PG-13 Running time: 110 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 04/11/2014

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