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"Draft Day": It's a Coin Toss

By Michael S. Goldberger
iBerkshires Film Critic
07:04PM / Thursday, April 17, 2014
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Popcorn Column
by Michael S. Goldberger  

Summit Entertainment
Kevin Costner cogitates on who he will pick for his fantasy football team in the insider-y 'Draft Day.'

Director Ivan Reitman's "Draft Day" dramatically mirrors the changing, commercially charged face of sportsdom. Once upon a time, devotees were primarily concerned with their superstars' skill and determination. I've always added a few points for uniform design: i.e., the serious majesty of the Yankees' NY, and those pinstripes; the colorful whimsy of two birds balancing at each end of a bat on the St. Louis Cardinals' jersey.

But if such pure, adulating naiveté did ever really exist, its death knell now clangs for spectators of all ages and styles. As my dear aunt Zelda agonizingly bemoaned before she disappeared forever and ever into the Niepolomice Forest, "It's all about money, money, money!" Even kids are hip to salary caps, options and what it's going to take to keep Casey playing for Mudville.

out of 4

Unabashed about this lost innocence and making no excuses for the greedy if not Philistine reality it depicts, "Draft Day" immerses itself bare knuckled into the financial inner workings of what it now entails to put a competitive football team on the gridiron. It is the sports movie version of those see-through wristwatches that let you glimpse the movements inside.

Evidenced in this transition, a new sports hero rises to the fore: the general manager. Here, portrayed by Kevin Costner with his usual sports movie poise, it is his job to add a military general's stratagem to the other long acknowledged qualities of alacrity, athleticism and football IQ. Now more than ever, the art of the deal plays a major part in the science of winning, which, the thinking is, will enrich the ownership. That beautiful uniform is all well and good, so long as it makes the team money.

Ironically, whether by accident, design or mysterious instruction from the cosmos, this evolving development allows greater and wider vicarious participation. Sure, Milt at the far end of the bar, forever replaying that last game for the state championship, has bragging rights, and can speak from experience. But now Dave, who generally sits next to the register and was always the last to get picked in playground choose-ups, is having his day in the sun.

Pretty good with numbers, he can tell you why they should trade this one before a certain date, and for how much extra money in return, and why that'll free up this and that and, with a little bit of luck, lead the home team to a championship. Like Uncle Ignacz, Zelda's understandably bewildered husband, said at his forest ranger school graduation rather late in life, "You don't have to be a great violinist to teach the violin."

Such is the case of Costner's Sonny Weaver, second-generation football management wunderkind. You know, winning is everything, rah, rah, rah! Of course, the story's hackneyed, feebly subtextual plots hint that, maybe, just like that couch potato/football-obsessed significant other you know, the GM really has a heart. Never mind that his first official move was to fire the longtime coach, who just happened to be his dad.

We wonder if the love interest, Ali, the Cleveland Browns' ace number cruncher played by Jennifer Garner, even cares if Sonny is human beneath all that fanaticism. She is the fantasy football girlfriend personified: unquestioning, loyal, an expert on all things pigskin, and expects almost nothing in return. Oh, she is expecting … a little player to be named later. But no time for soap opera stuff now. Sonny has to make his draft picks.

To divulge in detail the ins and outs of the high-stakes chess game for which the film is named would essentially unravel too many of the twists and turns Sonny must navigate if he is to hand his amusingly skeptical coach, played by Denis Leary, a top-flight team. Suffice it to note that in the opening scenes, amid vociferously mixed reaction, he practically gives the Seattle Seahawks the kitchen sink in return for their No. 1 pick, who would ostensibly be the highly touted quarterback, Bo Callahan (Josh Pence).

Naturally, things aren't exactly what they seem. In fact, it's darn complicated. However, to filmmaker Reitman's credit, even your lazy-minded auditor got the impression that he grokked the invigorating wheeling and dealing that takes place in the Cleveland Browns war room. A gaggle of Runyonesque cohorts alternately cheer and boo the tactician, depending on how the trade winds are blowing. Even Sonny's football royalty mom, portrayed by Ellen Burstyn, has her reservations.

Arriving at the two-minute warning part of my criticism, note that this niche interest film presents a bit of a goal-line stand. Whereas diehard enthusiasts might think it too elemental, odds are the huddled masses would agree the perfunctory slivers of human interest don't warrant making "Draft Day" a first-round choice at the multiplex.

"Draft Day," rated PG-13, is a Summit Entertainment release directed by Ivan Reitman and stars Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner and Denis Leary. Running time: 109 minutes

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