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posted: 4/10/2014 5:30 AM

'Draft Day' sacked by fumbled direction, dumbed-down dialogue

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  • Ali (Jennifer Garner) scores with Cleveland Browns general manager Sonny Weaver (Kevin Costner) in the NFL drama "Draft Day."

      Ali (Jennifer Garner) scores with Cleveland Browns general manager Sonny Weaver (Kevin Costner) in the NFL drama "Draft Day."

  • Video: "Draft Day" trailer

 
 

We suspect there will be something more to Cleveland Browns general manager Sonny Weaver than initially meets our eyes.

Look carefully at his office and you'll see a large photograph of chess pieces on the wall. Later, after a disgruntled ballplayer trashes his office, you can spot a miniature traveling chess set in the debris.

Clearly, Sonny plays chess and understands strategy, a quality that factors in to both his character and the plot of Ivan Reitman's behind-the-scenes professional football drama "Draft Day."

Unfortunately, the chess references are the most subtle and smartest parts of "Draft Day," a wildly miscast, flaccidly directed, disappointingly dumbed-down drama that reminds us of the phenomenal greatness of Bennett Miller's 2011 release "Moneyball."

Kevin Costner, who's been making a movie comeback recently (not a great one so far with "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," "3 Days to Kill" and now this), plays Sonny, an unproven GM living in the shadow of his legendary coach dad, whom Sonny fired shortly before the old man got traded to that big ball team in the sky.

On draft day in New York, when 224 football players will be accepted into the NFL, Sonny has more to worry about than mere pressure to pick a perfect team.

Ali (Jennifer Garner), his lover and fellow Browns office worker, announces she's pregnant, rendering Sonny surprising silent, and his non-reaction to her news proves to be a major Ali-oops.

With hours before the draft begins, Sonny desperately wants rising grid iron star Bo Callahan (Josh Pence) for his team. So desperately that he's willing to trade key draft picks for the next three years with the Seattle Seahawks.

Browns owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) puts the screws to his GM by insisting he "make a splash" at the draft. If he can't, then Molina says he will do it himself.

"Let me be clear here," Sonny says. "You're threatening to fire me ... right?"

Duh. Can chess-playing Sonny be that dense? Or did screenwriters Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph assume viewers to be so clueless they can't pick up the obvious threat in Molina's words?

Here, seasoned professional sports people talk down to each other as if they know nothing about sports, football or the draft, prompting characters to protest: "Hey, I know that already!"

Of course they do. The screenwriters are simply inserting exposition at the expense of their characters' integrity, unlike "Searching for Bobby Fischer," that made chess play understandable without the characters lapsing into tutorials.

Meanwhile, pressure to sign the messianic Bo Callahan builds, with Browns Coach Penn (Denis Leary) openly critical of Sonny's ability to make wise draft choices.

Even the GM's mother (Ellen Burstyn, making a mountain character out of a mole hill part) chimes in on Sonny's first big trade: "You sold a cow for magic beans!"

With the clock ticking (a point ridiculously reiterated, as in "The Cleveland Browns are now on the clock!"), Sonny seems overwhelmed by the drafty task at hand.

"I just want the team that I want!" he says to Ali.

Reitman, who gave us the classic supernatural comedy "Ghostbusters," directs "Draft Day" with the crispness of cold spaghetti, giving this motion picture the feel of a padded, pilot episode of a cable miniseries. Not AMC.

Properly looking his age at 58, the Oscar-winning Costner (for directing the highly overrated western "Dances With Wolves") comes off as way too old for his role, at least as written. (Impending parenthood would have certainly prompted Ali and Sonny to discuss their age difference, but they conspicuously ignore it, as if assuming viewers won't even notice.)

Somewhere in an editing software deleted folder might be most of Rosanna Arquette's role as Sonny's ex-wife Angie, who shows up at the Browns office with his mom, sits down and becomes a piece of furniture for the rest of the movie.

"Draft Day" attempts to compensate for its narrative sins by employing splashy and distracting split-screen visuals in which a character from one scene actually passes through an adjacent scene.

This gimmick screams with desperation to give "Draft Day" some cinematic panache. At least the movie's impressive establishing shots of the NFL's team headquarters around the country accomplish that quite well.

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