Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Draft Day

Alternate Title:  Field of Snores

One sentence synopsis:       The General Manager of the Cleveland Browns must battle the team's owner, coach, media, and his own family as he attempts to build the best team possible through the NFL draft.

Things Havoc liked:  I've mentioned in my reviews of Moneyball and 42 that I'm an avowed Baseball fan, but I haven't had the opportunity yet to discuss my position on Football, my favorite of the American spectator sports. Though I tend to open such reviews with scathing denunciations of teams such as the Oakland Athletics or the Los Angeles Dodgers, I feel in this case it would be unsportsmanlike, as well as unfair, for me to do something similar. Every fan deserves the right to root for their team unmolested, after all, and so I shall forebear to mention that teams such as the Pittsburgh Steelers or Dallas Cowboys are comprised entirely of communist goat molesters who employ the blackest of arts to seize tainted victory from shining beacons of progress and virtue such as my own San Francisco 49ers. To mention such things would, after all, be uncivilized.

But back to the film's virtues. Despite all the crap he's been in, I can't hate Kevin Costner, especially now that he seems to have finally left his Waterworld/Postman days behind him. Though his character was mutilated beyond all recognition, I thought he was an excellent choice for Johnathan Kent in Man of Steel, and he remains one here. Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr, son of a (fictional) long-time Browns coach, now serving as the General Manager of the Cleveland Browns as they struggle to recover from another (real) losing season. Unlike the Head Coach, the General Manager of a football team does not run the team but assemble it, responsible for drafting and trading the players that he believes he needs in order to produce a winning team. It's the same role, albeit for a different sport, that Brad Pitt held in Moneyball, but Costner plays it completely differently. Where Pitt was a self-assured rebel effortlessly engaging in multi-latteral trades to try and fleece his opponents, Costner struggles with the weight of the decision of the year, the selection of the Browns' first round draft pick, a decision that is his alone, but that literally everyone from the rest of the Browns staff to the fans to his own Mother want to give him "advice" on. Costner's performance isn't the best in the film, but he manages to sell the sheer importance of this single call, and the sequences wherein he snaps back at those who wish to bother him with their own "opinions" on what he ought to do are among the best he has.

And what a wonderful collection of dignitaries we have assembled to tell Costner that he is an idiot. Frank Langella plays the owner of the Browns, a showman who wants Costner to "make a splash" whether the pick works out well or not, by making some kind of massive, blockbuster trade/deal to stir up excitement. Langella is always fun to watch, regardless of the role, and he hams it up in this one in his best impression of Al Davis or George Steinbrenner. Dennis Leary, meanwhile, who has been making a habit of being the saving grace of otherwise terrible films, plays Coach Penn, head coach of the long-suffering Browns, a ringer brought in from a winning team to energize a snakebit franchise. Leary in particular in the standout for this film, as his trademark blue-collar acerbic schtick works very well in the mouth of the would-be tough guys that tend to hang around the margins of NFL coaching. One could easily see him as a standin for Bobby Petrino or Nick Saban. The generally strong cast is rounded out by other standouts, many of them in-jokes for NFL fans, including Chadwick Boseman (Jackie Robinson of 42) as prospect linebacker desired by Costner and nobody else, and real life star running back Arian Foster, playing a college phenom whose father, a former Browns great, is played by Terry Crews, a decision I don't quite understand but do endorse.

Things Havoc disliked: What, exactly, is the audience for a film like this? Football fans, would be my guess, and yet based on the evidence, that's not a viewpoint shared by the filmmakers. The movie advertises itself as a hardboiled, burning negotiation film, where deals are made and unmade in split seconds and the destinies of NFL teams are forged in a crucible of calculation and gut instinct. And there is that, I suppose, but unfortunately, the majority of the film is instead comprised of, say it with me, "family drama". And who have we brought in to this little engagement to provide the requisite drama? Why Jennifer Garner, of course.


No, Garner isn't godawful this time round (though she's not much better). The issue is really the idea that the movie should be about the personal and family troubles of Costner's character at all. Garner is his girlfriend/finance manager, who is suddenly pregnant barely a week after the death of Costner's father. What follows is a tired series of repeated scenes wherein Costner and Garner try to act at one another, misunderstand each other, are unable to talk about their troubles, become distant, make up, face relationship challllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllndfsmnasdf...........................

Huh? Sorry, I fell asleep on the keyboard there. You get the idea, right? Boring scene follows boring scene wherein Costner tries to act sensitive (never his strong suit) while Garner tries to act at all (same), all in regards to a subject that has nothing whatsoever to do with why we're actually here. And then, midway through the film, Ellen Burstyn, an actress I usually adore, shows up in a terrible role as Costner's mother, who seems to exist solely to make his life hard. Storming into his office the day of the draft itself, a subject she has been established as knowing all about (she calls him up to berate him for one of his draft moves earlier in the film), she demands that he drop everything to scatter his father's ashes on the practice field, and refuses categorically to consider doing it on any other day than the most important one in any NFL GM's life, nor to delay it by a single hour, and then drags his ex-wife along for no reason other than to snipe at Costner for working too much. This idea is so bad that it's actually painful to watch, as Burstyn is forced to play straight material that should have been laughed off the set. Of course she also doesn't like Garner (we have this much in common), and so we are given the obligatory sequences wherein Burstyn disrespects Garner, just so that we can wonder if they will later have a tearful scene of reconciliation to the accompaniment of string instruments.

And when we do, finally, return to the business of football, there are just too many questions. For one thing (spoiler alert?), Costner starts out the movie by making one of the most imbecilic moves in the history of bad draft moves, the kind of move that would, in reality, get compared to the infamous Herschel Walker trade between the Cowboys and Vikings. He spends the rest of the film being criticized for this move by most professionals in the organization, which is only fair, but the problem is that we see far too much of Costner's hand for the film to play the "is the move stupid or genius?" game. He has no secret plan, we know he has no secret plan, as we spend most of the film watching him agonize over the fact that he has no secret plan. So when the movie suddenly decides it wants to turn into Moneyball and pretend that Costner actually might have some kind of secret plan to turn this whole thing to his advantage, we are left with the conclusion that any good move he makes out of the aftermath of this situation is simply luck (or screenwriter fiat).

Ultimately, the film just doesn't feel like the sort of Hard Knocks, inside-the-curtain look at the backroom excitement of the NFL that it so clearly wants to be. Visits to other cities are accompanied by elaborate flyovers of the various stadiums (stadia?) complete with title cards reminding us that Seattle is, indeed, the home of the Seahawks, and Kansas City that of the Chiefs, something even a cursory fan of the NFL could probably figure out for themselves. Absent a montage sequence early in the film that seems placed there to acquaint people with the fact that football exists in Cleveland, there are no local touches, no colorful details of the Browns themselves, one of the most colorful (and storied) teams in the league. The terminology that the characters use with one another is either too vague and too detailed, with the script alternating between having characters explain concepts to one another that any professional would already know (so as to catch the audience up), and switching into the most arcane, acronym-laced verbiage imaginable, verbiage that could not possibly mean anything to any living human, and pretending that the characters (particularly Garner) understand what is being said as a sort of shorthand to the audience that "these guys know their stuff". Moneyball (and other movies of its ilk) managed to ride the line by using terms that the players or coaches might actually use, without bothering to explain them, understanding that audiences can catch up with the basics, and simply handwave away the rest, most of the time. But then, Moneyball was a movie with confidence and trust in its audience, whereas Draft Day is quite visibly not.

Final thoughts:   I don't want to make Draft Day sound terrible, for a terrible movie must take risks, and Draft Day takes none whatsoever. It is a movie that plays to a general audience that will never go see it, Doldrums or not, while failing to satisfy the specialty audience that might. Layered in personal drama that is both uninteresting and badly done, the movie thereby disguises what strengths it actually has by pretending for most of its runtime that it is about something other than football. I understand that not everyone is a fan of American football, but movies about something as precisely on-point as the NFL draft cannot get away with generalizing themselves in the hopes of drawing in a wider audience, not unless they are made with considerably more care and skill than this movie is.

If you're a fan like me, watch the real draft, and otherwise tide yourself over until next season, as you will find nothing in this film you don't already know, and in fact plenty that you likely know better than the film's creators. If you're not a fan, then frankly you had no chance of seeing this anyway, as the subject will mean nothing to you, and the film is not nearly strong enough to be worth seeing by itself.

Oh, and if you happen to be one of those hipsters who cannot tolerate the mention of the word "Football" without loudly proclaiming to all and sundry how much you don't like the sport of 'hand-egg', and how that makes you special and unique? Then I strongly recommend you go see this movie immediately. Seriously, man, it'll change your life.

Final Score:  4.5/10

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