When it comes to sports films, Kevin Costner is a natural.
From Bull Durham to Field of Dreams to Tin Cup, the former high school athlete seems to find his rhythm on cinematic playing fields. And while he's not as dexterous as he was in those terrific films, he's got enough in the tank to carry Draft Day (**½ out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday nationwide).
Surprisingly knowledgeable about pro football — and devoid of nearly any action from it — Draft doesn't have the nuance of 2011's Moneyball, the Brad Pitt story of the Oakland A's front office that earned six Oscar nominations.
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But Draft's reverence for the gridiron, its heroes and the cities that worship them (particularly Cleveland) will make the movie a first-round pick of diehards.
Costner plays Sonny Weaver, Jr., the general manager of the Cleveland Browns and son of a coaching legend who recently died.
Sonny isn't as legendary as Pops, thanks to a mediocre season that gave the Browns another losing record and the seventh pick in the NFL Draft.
Director Ivan Reitman does a deft job of capturing the national frenzy that has become the annual selection of college players headed to the pros. The movie opens with breathless ESPN analysts playing themselves, including the sandpaper-voiced Chris Berman, literally counting the seconds until the draft commences.
In 'Draft Day', Kevin Costner tries to piece together the perfect team as the general manager of the Cleveland Browns. VPC
Sonny knows he needs to turn around the team's fortunes with a canny pick, and he begins a multimillion-dollar chess match with other NFL brass before the draft begins. Execs lie, cajole, beg and barter to cannonball the college football talent pool.
Draft sparkles in its first half, which underscores how much cities invest in their NFL teams. The film knows its Cleveland Browns history well, and documents how outraged residents were when owner Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore for the 1996 season — and when the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2001.
Not since 2004's Friday Night Lights has a feature film captured football frenzy so authentically: Fans call for Sonny's firing by writing on dirty windows; disc jockeys demand his expulsion; even his mother (Ellen Burstyn) offers trade advice.
Rajiv Joseph is also a Cleveland native.
But the film nearly stumbles at the goal line. Costner is well-suited as an aging athlete, but Jennifer Garner is left with an unnecessary love story. Denis Leary plays a fast-talking coach who drove the Dallas Cowboys into the ground before landing in Cleveland.
Problem is, we never see the coach in action — or anyone else. Draft may be one of Hollywood's few football stories without any football, save for some footage from classic games. Credit it with an unorthodox approach to the genre. But it doesn't have enough depth to its characters to overcome the lack of action. It's hard to see the film appealing to those who don't follow the game or play fantasy football.
The movie was not only shot in Cleveland, but it is set here as well.
Still, that's a sizable chunk. And there's no denying what Draft gets right: that inevitable city-wide hope that comes before every season, with every fresh start, that this may be their year.
Even in Cleveland.