If “Moneyball” could transform the inner workings of a baseball front office into Oscar-worthy entertainment, it was only a matter of time before a writer injected some drama into the NFL’s player-selection process. And here it is: “Draft Day.”
Make no mistake, this isn’t a sports movie so much as a procedural about backroom dealings, double-crosses and high-stakes trades. It’s about the games before the games. And if writers Scott Rothman and Pulitzer Prize finalist playwright Rajiv Joseph (who wrote “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” and “Gruesome Playground Injuries”) had stuck to the basics — if the plot was just business — it might have worked.
Kevin Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., general manager of the Cleveland Browns. His team is struggling, and his father, the former coach, has recently died. He also just found out that his girlfriend, Ali (Jennifer Garner), is pregnant.
That’s a lot of stress, but today is a new day. In fact, it’s draft day, and things are getting interesting. The Browns are supposed to choose seventh overall, but Sonny gets an early-morning call from the Seattle Seahawks, who are willing to trade their first-round pick for the Browns’ first-round selection in each of the next three seasons. On the plus side, Cleveland could scoop up standout quarterback prospect Bo Callahan (Josh Pence). But it leaves the team at a disadvantage in future years.
What to do? It’s hard to say, given that everyone has a different opinion on the matter, from Coach Penn (Denis Leary) to owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) to Sonny’s own mother (Ellen Burstyn, who almost completely steals the show with her Twitter knowledge). So Sonny does some research: He makes calls to coaches and watches old footage, he tracks down gossip and writes cryptic notes to himself. All this is actually incredibly entertaining, which is curious given that most of the conversations involve one person desperately asking questions and the other person responding with no concrete answers.
The problem is, “Draft Day” isn’t just a procedural. It’s weighed down by a contrived romantic subplot between Sonny and Ali, who also works for the Browns, which means Sonny can repeatedly drag her into the supply closet for round after round of anguished discussions and tender moments.
If the pair generated some sparks, these exchanges might be more thrilling. Instead the scenes just highlight how miscast the actors are. Costner’s delivery is flat and lacks energy. Garner has done some exceptional work in the past, but can’t seem to land the sassy one-liners that Ali is supposed to deliver.
Ivan Reitman directed “Draft Day,” and the man who brought us “Ghostbusters” and “Dave” presents many of the conversations in a distracting, split-screen way; the participants, shown on the phone in their different rectangles, zip back and forth across the screen, or disappear from one side of the frame and then reappear on the other.
Worse, sometimes people won’t be talking on the phone at all, but they’ll still be up there in a trio of split screens, flip-flopping around, zooming left and sliding right. It starts to feel like that sidewalk game with the three cups and the marble. You’ll try hard to focus on what’s happening, but by the time the game ends, you realize it was no use. You’ve just been duped out of your money.
★ ★ PG-13. At area theaters. Contains brief strong language and sexual references. 109 minutes.