It says something about the culture that the latest American sports-themed movie has almost nothing to do with game play and everything to do with wheeling and dealing: dealmaking itself has become a sport worthy of analysis. And thus the "art of the deal" fantasy "Draft Day" will probably appeal strongly to both football fans and self-styled board-room geniuses, in no small part because it panders so.
One hopes the NFL paid ample promotional consideration for this feature-length salute to the importance of NFL football. Beginning thirteen hours before the NFL Draft, the picture concerns one Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner), general manager of the basement-dwelling Cleveland Browns. The fiftysomething exec can feel the heat: his head's on the chopping block of team owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella); the die-hard, hopeful fans are clamoring for change; Sonny's father, a legendary Browns coach, has just passed away, leaving Sonny's mother (Ellen Burstyn) on edge; and Sonny's downlow office girlfriend, in-house lawyer Ali (Jennifer Garner), has just announced her pregnancy, pushing the point of their relationship status.
But Sonny, Sonny, he's our man; if he can't do it, no one can. Like a coach, Sonny has to read the field, ponder his options, and make big offensive and defensive calls while keeping up the morale of his team: Molina, the current QB (Tom Welling), and the actual coaching staff (as head coach, Denis Leary lends his brand of a-hole bite). And then there are the college prospects in play, including family man Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman of "42"), Browns legacy Ray Jennings (Arian Foster, playing son to Terry Crews), and presumptive top pick Bo Callahan (Josh Pence).
As per sports-movie formula, Sonny takes plenty of early hits -- giving up deal points from a place of palpable desperation -- but somehow you just know he's going to come up a winner. The predictability in the air saps "Draft Day" of much of its tension for much of its run time, especially as screenwriters Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph (a Pulitzer finalist for his play "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo") early on establish a key piece of information that they and Sonny inexplicably shelve until closer to the climax.
The two-stage climax of the Browns' draft pick and its immediate aftermath finally kicks the picture into gear, but by then the audience might feel well and truly played. "Draft Day" amounts to a corporate training film full of Trump-card koans: a prominent sign on Sonny's office wall offers the Sun Tzu wisdom "Every battle is won before it is ever fought," Sonny spouts his own hard-earned white-guy wisdom ("A man steps up"), and the story is a monument to putting character first and always, always trusting your gut. Garner, eighteen years Costner's junior, is around mostly to reassert his virility and his righteousness, purring lines like "You see things other people don't see" and "All that matters is what you think."
Director Ivan Reitman ("Ghostbusters") applies some showy split-screen stylings to try to liven up the proceedings, and he certainly knows how to maximize, with timing, a choice comic swear. And yes, Costner remains a reassuringly steady presence. But this combo of "inside football" and Capra-corn fable of being one's own man in the face of total opposition will leave some viewers feeling they've been sold a bill of goods.