When I see a trailer for a movie, the first thing I ask myself is pretty simple: Who is the target audience? Who is the studio trying to pull in? When that Friday night of opening weekend rolls around, the butts in the seats of the biggest theater in a cinema belong to whom?
It’s usually pretty obvious. Big-budget action flick? Guys 18-35. Romantic comedy? Women, and the men who will reluctantly go with them. Period piece? A sophisticated older set. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot? Me. Nicolas Cage star vehicle? Everyone.
When I initially read that Draft Day was in the works, the first thing I did was dismiss the article as an Onion-type parody. Surely no one was crazy enough to actually make a major motion picture about the NFL draft, the offseason bellwether of the most powerful professional sports league on the planet but an event that hardly draws a diverse fan base. Surely no one would make a movie that’s ostensibly centered around the Cleveland Browns. Surely no one would ever employ Kevin Costner again after 3 Days to Kill.
We started seeing ads for the movie during the NCAA tournament We started seeing the NCAA tournament during commercial breaks from Draft Day trailers in mid-March, and by then it became increasingly clear: This is a real thing with breathing human actors and seemingly legitimate production value. This is not a Funny or Die sketch or an SNL commercial parody.
It wasn’t screened for critics, which is perhaps more of a red flag to a movie than your babysitter arriving in a windowless white van is to parenting. Despite all the warning signs to stay away, I couldn’t help myself. I had to see it. You can have your Starks, Lannisters and Targaryens. There’s no better fantasy out there than a man trying to save the Cleveland Browns.
Draft Day is advertised as a sports movie, but it’s not. It most certainly is never made without the page-to-screen success that was Moneyball, which also was more about what was happening on the phone than on the field. But that had Brad Pitt, a star-making turn from Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and a screenplay from Aaron Sorkin. Draft Day, based off a made-for-TV event hosted by Chris Berman, has a wooden Costner, Puff Daddy/P. Diddy/Diddy/Sean Combs and a pair of first-time screenwriters.
It’s reasonably well directed by Ivan Reitman, but Reitman’s background is in comedy – Animal House, Ghostbusters, Stripes, Meatballs. The last film on that list aptly describes his most recent directing work – My Super Ex-Girlfriend and No Strings Attached – and Draft Day is no different.
It’s a movie without an audience.
Twenty million people watched the first round of the 2013 NFL draft on either NFL Network or ESPN, making it the most popular show on cable that night and nearly tripling the days’ next most-viewed sporting event, a Clippers-Grizzlies game on TNT. It’s an event that has turned from being little more than a teleconference as recently as the late 70s to a three-day television juggernaut, chock full of drama for fans hoping their team will begin a rebuilding process or find that missing piece to put them over the top.
[SPOILER ALERT: If you don’t want to know the nitty-gritty of how this fictional absurdity goes down, scroll down. There’s a lot of ground to cover.]
There’s no such thrill in Draft Day. The movie telegraphs where it’s going from the moment it introduces Chadwick Boseman’s Vontae Mack, the stud linebacker from Ohio State who is apparently either going to be taken with the seventh overall pick by the Browns or fall to the late teens. Mack learns that Costner’s Sonny Weaver, Jr. trades Cleveland’s pick to Seattle – along with first rounders the next two years – for the No. 1 overall pick and, presumably, the right to take Wisconsin quarterback Bo Callahan.
OK, so Seattle has the fictional No. 1 pick. Probably not the wisest choice considering the Seahawks were coming off an 11-5 season during filming and have since won the Super Bowl, but I’ll overlook it. And the Browns trade the 7th overall pick and two additional No. 1s (we’ll assume those are around the 15th pick each year) for the top pick. According to this trade value chart Weaver overpays, but considering Callahan is, according to fake/real Mel Kiper, Jr. “the best QB prospect since Andrew Luck” (TWO whole years ago!), we’ll allow it.
Callahan won the 2014 Heisman Trophy according to the movie, an impressive accomplishment considering the 2014 Heisman will be handed out almost seven months to the day AFTER the 2014 NFL draft. He’s by all accounts the real deal and a true franchise changer, which everyone seems to believe. Except for Seattle, which needs a QB. And Cleveland, which already has a serviceable if injury-prone QB and needs to “make a splash,” according to owner Arthur Molina (Frank Langella).
Weaver seems set on picking Callahan for just that reason, but wait! Mack somehow has Weaver’s cell number! That leads to the following completely believable set of events.
1) Mack tells Weaver to watch tape of the Ohio State-Wisconsin game, and pay attention to Callahan’s reaction after each of Mack’s FOUR sacks.
2) Weaver notices that Callahan looks scared on the play immediately following each of the sacks.
3) Weaver watches Callahan’s game-winning touchdown pass and realizes that (GASP!) Mack wasn’t out there!
4) But why?
5) Because after Mack sacked Callahan and returned the ensuing fumble for a touchdown, he handed the ball to a fan (his now-dead sister!) and was flagged by the referee. He then took off his helmet and was ejected.
6) Because this was apparently some hidden secret that happened in a game that was not televised or garnered attention in anyway. Ohio State and Wisconsin. That’s Home Shopping Network material, right there.
7) The team security guard tells Weaver that Callahan had a 21st birthday party and none of his teammates attended.
8) Weaver, who apparently hated his father and mother and can’t even have a real conversation with the woman he supervises at work and also recently impregnated (Jennifer Garner), is taken aback that Callahan’s teammates wouldn’t be there for his birthday celebration.
9) We haven’t even addressed that Mack is projected to fall to the late teens despite a) playing at Ohio State, b) being a premium edge rusher, and c) sacking the eventual Heisman winner four times in the HGTV Game of the Season.
Of course, he doesn’t drop. Weaver takes Mack, whom he could have drafted seventh, with the first pick. Coach Vince Penn (Denis Leary) finds a crumpled up note of Weaver’s, which we saw him write earlier in the day, that reads: “VONTAE MACK NO MATTER WHAT.”
So, to review: GM of downtrodden franchise needs to make a splash, or he’ll find his job in jeopardy. GM trades three No. 1 picks to take franchise QB. GM is scared off by QB not having friends. GM takes player at No. 1 he could have taken six picks later without giving up two more No. 1s. GM needs post-it note to remember what he plans to do, because remembering is hard. GM is about to get fired by cranky owner.
BUT WAIT! COSTNER AIN’T DONE!
While he’s in the middle of feuding with Coach Penn (Leary being Leary!), avoiding his baby mama, apologizing to his nerdy intern and yelling at his mother for her wanting to scatter her husband’s freshly minted ashes on the practice field (seriously!), IDEAS ARE FORMING.
Once Weaver passes on Callahan, every other NFL team is scared. What red flag did he find? We can’t trust our own scouting! If the GM of a team that hasn’t won anything in a half-century who fired his own father thought Callahan wasn’t worth taking, then our own eyes deceived us!! Callahan starts dropping.
What to do, what to do. …. Oh, the Jaguars are terrible! And they have a rookie GM! Let’s lob them a call. Weaver does and offers Jacksonville two second-round draft picks for the No. 6 pick and the chance to draft the QB who has imaginary friends and, suddenly, a drinking problem. The Jags’ clearly scared GM rebuffs Weaver, but when Weaver offers a third second-round pick the Jacksonville war room suddenly reacts as if they’d just been given the chance to acquire John Elway, a healthy Bo Jackson and a topless Scarlett Johansson to be the team’s mascot. Deal.
BUT WAIT! COSTNER AIN’T DONE!
Now Weaver has traded away the Browns’ first- and second-round picks for the next three years and has only Mack and presumably Callahan to show for it. He has a chance to save face after fleecing Jacksonville’s green GM in the new NFL Netowrk special Baby’s First War Room. Let’s go full circle. Let’s call up the Seattle GM and tell him how you’ve been reading the message boards and fan blogs and he’s being skewered for trading away the top pick. This is their chance to get Callahan and wind up paying him millions less.
Weaver wants his three No. 1s back. Seattle agrees.
BUT COSTNER. AIN’T. DONE.
“What else do we need?” he asks the war room. And Ali Parker, team salary cap expert/coffee getter/person who talks to Weaver in supply closets/carrier of Weaver’s child demands a punt returner! We have them over a barrel … DEMAND A SPECIAL TEAMER!
The Seahawks, clearly confused, are happy to oblige. At the end of the day they got the next Andrew Luck for a hefty discount and a punt returner. The Jaguars passed up a chance to take a franchise QB and wound up with three second-round picks, thus increasing the likelihood of the team moving to Los Angeles. And the Browns took a running back with the seventh pick and made Coach Penn a little less crotchety.
[END MIND-BLOWING SPOILERS FROM MOVIE WHOSE NEXT CALL WILL BE FROM ACADEMY OF MOTION PICTURE ARTS AND SCIENCES]
Despite all of those shenanigans, the biggest problem with Draft Day is that it’s boring. It’s empty phone call after empty phone call. It tries to set up the “twist” at the end as the big victory, but the only reason Weaver still has a job by the end of the movie is because the Jaguars’ GM was kidnapped by an assistant manager at Walgreens.
It’s two hours of NFL infomercial, complete with a Roger Goodell cameo. It’s trying to attract an audience that makes the draft a titanic production, but forgetting the reasons why the event is such a force in the first place: 1) alcohol, 2) genuine intrigue, and 3) booing Roger Goodell.
None of those really applies here, and even if they did, this is not a movie with any broad appeal. It’s not a blockbuster, not a date night flick and it’s not really a sports movie. Costner might as well be reading his dialogue, 70 percent of which is on the phone, off cue cards, while Garner doesn’t have much to do other than look perpetually worried. The only compelling performance comes from Boseman, who at least attempts to bring a sense of emotion to his interactions with Costner.
It’s not enough to make a difference, but I’ll give Draft Day this: The premise of the movie lines up identically with the action that permeates throughout.
It’s all about phoning it in.