NFL front offices are ugly looking, like a cross between a Gatorade bottle and a corporate accounting department. Draft Day, which consists in large part of conference calls between football franchise bosses, tries to compensate for this by deploying sliding, comic-book-panel-like split screens. Elements from one portion of the frame are digitally composited into another, with elbows and shoulders protruding over the split screen boundary; at certain points, the screen is split into three or four different frames, all nudging each other. Explanatory titles and a countdown timer occasionally pop into the edges of the screen. It’s the first, and probably last, sports comedy to take its visual cues from Ang Lee’s Hulk.
Set over the course of 12 hours leading up to the NFL draft, the movie focuses on Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner), the widely reviled general manager of the Cleveland Browns. The plot begins with the cash-strapped Seattle Seahawks trading their right to pick first to Sonny in exchange for his first-round picks in future drafts, and grows more convoluted from there. Rumors of the trade endear Sonny to the fans and to his boss (Frank Langella), but put him at odds with his team, which presumes that he’ll use it to draft Heisman Trophy-winning sociopath Bo Callahan (Josh Pence) instead of the players it’s already scouted and chosen. As if the behind-the-scenes shenanigans weren’t complicated enough, first-time screenwriters Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph pack the movie with subplots, involving the legacy of Sonny’s recently deceased father, his office romance with football wonk Ali (Jennifer Garner), his antagonistic relationship to head coach Penn (Denis Leary), and the assorted personal lives of the draft picks. Because all of these plots and subplots have to completely resolve themselves within the space of 12 hours, most come across as overly simplistic.
Insider narratives have to balance credibly arcane patter with the needs of the audience; ideally, part of the jargon serves as verbal music, enticing the viewer to want to figure out what the hell the characters are talking about. Draft Day’s script, however, is plagued by over-explanation, with characters continually stating things they should already know. Throughout, the movie repeats the same dialogue setup, with a character asking whether another character is familiar with some football fact or anecdote, hearing a variation on “yes,” and then telling it anyway.
But despite its clunkiness, Draft Day ends up being funny—and at times even compelling—thanks to director Ivan Reitman’s handling of a large cast of ringers and character actors, including Sam Elliott, Pat Healy, Terry Crews, and Ellen Burstyn. Their performances create a better sense of continuity than the split screens that are used to present them; all of the movie’s complicated visual gimmickry never accomplishes anything that a little intercutting couldn’t have.