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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The pre-pre-season opening kickoff of the 2014 National Football League schedule is returned for a score in "Draft Day," an entirely conventional serio-comic sports world melodrama that pushes its buttons with undeniable professional finesse. In his most effective full star turn in perhaps a decade, Kevin Costner dominates as the greenhorn general manager of the beleaguered Cleveland Browns who could emerge from the heavy shadow of his late revered father with the successful handling of the annual draft of college players.
Most great sports stories center on an underdog and Costner's Sonny Weaver Jr. can claim that status on at least two counts: He's a man well into his 50s who has never been able to make his own mark due to his dad's legendary status, and his team is Cleveland, a dyed-in-the-wool football town that hasn't had a team win it all since 1964. Further cementing Sonny's status as a late bloomer, if not something of a Peter Pan, is that he's just learned he's to become a dad for the first time, courtesy of his secret relationship with one of the team's financial executives, Ali (Jennifer Garner). From every point of view, Sonny's got something to prove.
The screenwriting team of Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman make it easy even for the uninitiated to get with the program, using real ESPN announcers and plenty of other commentary to clarify the workings of the draft, as NFL teams annually line up and sometimes jockey for position to select new players; although the order of selection is theoretically based on performance from the previous season, teams can bargain with each other for higher picks, negotiations which involve last-minute phone calls right down the wire and owe much both to shrewd talent assessment skills and great gambling instincts.
This season, the number one pick belongs to Seattle and the consensus favorite for player to be signed first is star Wisconsin quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), who's the sort of talent you build a team around. Seattle wants to claim him but, under pressure from the intimidating Cleveland team owner (Frank Langella) to make a "splash," Sonny negotiates first dibs on Callahan for a tall price, that of the Browns' first draft picks for the next three years.
Although the whole football world seems to think Callahan is the latest incarnation of Joe Montana or Tom Brady, Sonny isn't so sure, prompting alternately amusing and concerning probes into the QB's past behavior. Not only that, but Sonny has long had his eye on two other great college players, played by Chadwick Boseman (from "42") and actual Houston running back Arian Foster. But he would seem to have given up on them by dealing for Callahan, a move that has understandably infuriated the Browns' present quarterback (Tom Welling).
It's Sonny's lot to take a lot of crap from almost everyone around him, particularly from his disrespectful coach (Denis Leary), who loves to shove his Super Bowl ring from his Dallas days in his face, and even from his mother (a most amusing Ellen Burstyn), who selects this of all days to conduct a memorial ceremony for her husband and cast his ashes upon the practice field named for him.
But making Sonny human, and warming up the film so much that even non-fan female viewers will likely find it engaging, is his relationship with Ali. Real life would probably see a man in Sonny's high-pressure situation telling the woman he's just learned he's knocked up to please put their needed conversation on hold for 24 hours. Raised a Browns fan, Ali is into the draft frenzy herself, realistic and helpful to Sonny when he needs it. All the same, the two amusingly retreat to a storeroom several times in an attempt at some private moments, which seldom go uninterrupted for long. Garner's a treat here.
"Draft Day," a Lionsgate release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "brief strong language and sexual references." Running time: 109 minutes.
MPAA rating definition for PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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