Will you get this movie's joke about Ryan Leaf? It’s fine if you don’t. I didn’t. I don’t follow football at all. My favorite Super Bowl was the one in 1996 when the Steelers played the Cowboys and I ignored it to go see Michael Mann’s Heat (helpful tip: always pick a dude movie on game day, you'll have the theater to yourself). And I’m from Texas and was living in Dallas at the time, so my resolve, as you can see, was strong. Of course, in all fairness to the Super Bowl, I also ignored the Academy Awards this year to go see an opera, so maybe I’m generally just not a joiner. But I do love North Dallas Forty (because it’s caustic), Big Fan (because Patton Oswalt is kind of heartbreaking in it), and Rudy (because I’m not made of stone).
Anyway, I had to Google poor, broken down Ryan Leaf to get the reference. But it was the only moment during the surprisingly decent Draft Day where I felt myself turn into a confused, head-cocked-to-one-side canine, and that’s good news for non-sport-minded moviegoers. It’s less a football film than a football-ish film, a fan-courting battle of wills starring the suits, scouts and CEOs who really run the show.
A little more than twelve hours are left until the NFL draft and Sonny Weaver (Kevin Costner, taking it easy), the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, is extremely busy. He has a losing streak on his hands and a strong desire to land incoming quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), the same college superstar every other team wants. Meanwhile, the Browns' own quarterback (Tom Welling) is demanding a chance to prove his worth; solid player Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman, 42’s Jackie Robinson) is begging to join the Browns himself; Sonny’s colleague Ali (Jennifer Garner) informs him that she’s pregnant with his baby and Sonny's mother (Ellen Burstyn, dominating her small amount of screen time like she’s trying to win her own Super Bowl ring) picks the worst possible moment to push Sonny into participating in a memorial for his estranged and recently deceased coaching legend father.
Frequently pushing Sonny’s personal life to the margins, director Ivan Reitman and screenwriters Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph focus on his desire for a respectable football legacy, as well as the power moves and cutthroat deals behind the draft’s scenes, all of which are infused with a healthy dose of ego from everyone involved. And that means a lot of extended sequences of people talking on the phone. And I mean a lot. To un-boring that less than cinematic situation as best he can, Reitman makes sure that characters are usually walking somewhere as they speak and that the frame is almost constantly wiping back and forth or split into halves and thirds like a masculinist Pillow Talk. You get used to it even if you never stop noticing its gimmicky presence.
Comparisons to the darker, superior Moneyball are inevitable, as are complaints about the film’s eager willingness to sidestep a lot of the uglier corporate aspects of professional sports. But that was never on this story's mind in the first place. It just loves the game. So call it wishful and idealistic and nobody will really mind; it lives in a fan-loving universe where goodness and team spirit are legitimate currency and underdogs get a real shot, kind of like if Rudy grew up to study stats and negotiate salary caps.