Draft Day’ is all negotiation and no action

Leary, Langella and Costner (from left) are the faces of the Cleveland Browns in Draft Day.

Two and a half stars

Draft Day Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary. Directed by Ivan Reitman. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.

A football movie in which no football is actually played, Draft Day wants to do for its sport what Moneyball did for baseball, but while Bennett Miller’s drama was based on real events (taking some liberties), Draft Day is pure fiction, serving as feel-good cheerleading for the NFL. Like Moneyball, Draft Day focuses not on an athlete or a coach but on a team’s general manager, in this case Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) of the beleaguered Cleveland Browns. Hoping to restore his team to glory, Sonny makes a number of unorthodox moves on the league’s draft day, when each team picks new prospects to join its lineup.

In addition to his pressures at work, Sonny is struggling to deal with the news that his much younger girlfriend and co-worker, Ali (Jennifer Garner), is pregnant, and he’s still processing the recent death of his father, the team’s beloved longtime coach. That’s a lot of emotional baggage to hang on what is essentially a business negotiation, and the movie never manages to give Sonny’s personal problems as much weight as the office politics.

Not that the office politics are that exciting to begin with. Sonny clashes with his team’s outspoken head coach (Denis Leary) and its flashy owner (Frank Langella), both of whom have their own agendas for the draft. The movie tries to paint Sonny as a maverick, but his tactics ultimately turn out to be the opposite of the statistical analysis in Moneyball, instead relying on gut instincts and emotional appeals. Costner is likable, but he and Garner have no chemistry, giving their relationship less passion than the various discussions of salary caps.

Director Ivan Reitman, known for his comedies (Ghostbusters, Twins, Dave), seems not to trust the script, and he relies on near-constant split screens to enliven the many, many phone conversations Sonny has throughout the day. Instead of increasing the drama, though, it just makes the movie seem desperate and hyperactive. When the negotiations get down to the wire in the movie’s last 15 minutes or so, Draft Day turns genuinely exciting. The rest of the time, it’s like sitting in a meeting with your affable but dull boss.

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