Summit Entertainment via Everett Collection
When a movie opts to play inside baseball with a particular industry, it runs two risks: alienating the people outside looking in ("What the hell is all this mumbo jumbo?"), or alienating the people tightly connected to the underworld on display ("They got it all wrong!"). On special occasions, you have a film like Draft Day, which strikes out in both areas, somehow feigning expertise with such vigor as to befuddle strangers to behind-the-scenes football and frustrate those with an inborn knowledge of the underworld. As a member of the former community, I was bored stiff by the nonstop industry jabber. I was surprised to find, after our viewing of the movie, that a sports-savvy friend was even more aggravated with the film for everything they got so very, very wrong.
But really, neither of these is the true crime of Draft Day. Even on the promise of delivering a bona fide curtain pull on the NFL, all the film really owes us is a good story. Instead, Draft Day banks on the appeal of its would-be authenticity — this is how football people talk, act, eat, do business, grimace, throw laptops on draft day! — as a stand-in for any material we might otherwise be able to care about. The film slaps Kevin Costner's Sonny Weaver Jr., beleaguered general manager of the Cleveland Browns, with just about every go-to leading man conflict in the book (problems at work, problems with his girlfriend, problems with his family) in hopes that something will land in the neighborhood of emotional legitimacy... or, more plausibly, in hopes that it'll play enough like an attempt at a screenplay to warrant all the stats talk he's really there to spout.
His supporting cast has even less to do — Jennifer Garner is his all smiles romantic partner whose vehement love for football is supposed to make her interesting to us (What?! But she's a girl!). Ellen Burstyn is Sonny's disapproving mother, who has a penchant for wistful staring. Denis Leary is a coach who yells a lot.
Summit Entertainment via Everett Collection
The one vein of character work that stands out as a near success comes attached to the line of potential drafts. Josh Pence plays draft frontrunner Bo Callahan who Sonny has a bad feeling about. Chadwick Boseman is the underdog linebacker who we know we're supposed to like because he takes his nephews to gymnastics. In a post-Moneyball world, Sonny is accessing the humanity in the boys he's considering for a career on his field. Hell, he's even willing to overlook the troubled past of Arian Foster because he trusts the boy's dad (I think Terry Crews is contractually obligated to appear in any movie about football). It's thin material that amounts to a disjointed explosion, but it rings as the movie's most interesting stuff. Unfortunately, it's couriered through Sonny, a character who we're barely allowed to meet.
The tragedy of this conclusion is that most of the cast members, Costner included, are giving moreover enjoyable performances — accolades in particular to 25-year-old Griffin Newman as fish-out-of-water intern Rick, suffering through the worst first day of work imaginable. The small comedy offered by Newman and a few others (bullpen fixtures like Wade Williams and Veep's Timothy Simons) is treated like an occasional garnish, but amounts to much-craved sustenance when it pervades the tasteless and stale football blather.
Blather that will detract anybody just hoping to catch a fun sports movie, and blather that will turn off the most high-minded of football fans craving some degree of industrial accuracy. In either case, the blather exists in absence of much otherwise. Without any real characters operating in this dense, hectic, ostensibly colorful world of the NFL, it feels as vacant as Sun Life Stadium on opening weekend. (Right?)
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Vietnam vet Leon Barlow is going through a terrible patch. His bitter separation from wife Marilyn resulted in a restraining order and he sees his kids Alan and Alisha only occasionally. His writing career is definitely in question because day after day returned manuscripts and rejection letters arrive in his mailbox. Still Leon manages to tap out prose in the shabby house he shares with a mangy mutt in a rural Mississippi outpost. Leon's best pal Monroe throws him a painting job now and then but is little more than a drinking buddy. Their mutual friend Velma is fun to party with at local dives but is more Monroe's lady. Leon's carousing lands him in jail and a stint in community service after a near-fatal car accident. A terrible family tragedy sobers him up but the big turning point for Leon arrives in the form of an unexpected letter from a long-supportive editor.
Arliss Howard who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay turns in a muscular if familiar performance as the tormented writer. A logical comparison is Ed Harris' recent interpretation of Jackson Pollock an artist similarly bedeviled. But Leon's devils are a mystery--so much so that one wonders: What is this guy's problem? Still Howard has the pervasive angst and southern drawl down pat and convinces as a loser aching to be a winner. Paul Le Mat as pal Monroe is fine as the inconsequential but sweet yokel but Rosanna Arquette as Velma has little to do except look pretty. For reasons unknown Howard's real-life wife Debra Winger who plays onscreen wife Marilyn left her southern drawl somewhere under the kudzu. Whereas all the other characters ring true of Mississippi roots Winger somehow feels flown in from parts unknown. Also in a brief role Angie Dickinson as Leon's mother makes a very welcome return to the big screen. Sigourney Weaver lends some relief and her voice as an unseen editor.
Director Howard co-adapting with his brother from short stories by Larry Brown has slapped on enough style for three films to the extent that
Big Bad Love too often makes no sense. Worse whatever the story is here (surely it's more than that writers get lucky if they wait long enough) is lost. Howard making his directorial debut resorts to loads (overloads) of flashy devices: cryptic montages fantasy sequences solemn fade-outs noisy soundtrack flourishes etc. Such directorial "virtuosity" not only saps the narrative drive but also robs the characters of the much-needed dimensions that make them real recognizable and compelling. Also with so much style crushing so little substance it's just not clear at all at several important junctures what the heck is going on.