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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Director Report Card: Ivan Reitman (2014)

16. Draft Day

“No Strings Attached” was only a minor hit but it was still the biggest movie Ivan Reitman had directed in a while. The movie was also fairly mediocre while still managing to be Reitman’s best film in quite some time. Perhaps thinking he was on something of a comeback, Reitman made his first proper drama, “Draft Day.” Whatever good will his previous success won him was quickly squandered. “Draft Day” barely made a blip at the box office, just barely justifying its budget. The movie came and went at theaters so quickly that, when I looked up Reitman before starting this Director Report Card, I was surprised to see he directed it. Despite the film only being two years old, I had already completely forgotten it existed. I wish I could say “Draft Day” didn’t deserved to be so quickly discarded. However, Reitman’s latest is entirely disposable.

The day of the NFL Draft pick has come. Sonny Weaver, manager of the Cleveland Browns, has a number of difficult choices to make. Nearly everyone in the business agrees that a quarterback named Bo Callahan is the obvious pick. Weaver is being pressured by those around him to choose Callahan. Sonny, however, has his doubts. He favors other potential choices. Meanwhile, Weaver has also discovered that his girlfriend, a co-worker, is pregnant. His mother is preparing the funeral of his late father. Weaver struggles to make the right decision while those around him try to force his hand.

During his forty-year-plus career in the film industry, Ivan Reitman has never directed a straight-forward drama before. He has made plenty of comedies, a horror film, a legal quasi-thriller, some science-fiction mash-ups, and one or two movies that could be located in the action genre. Considering his frequently slap-dash approach to scripting, I wouldn’t expect dramas to appeal much to Reitman. “Draft Day” isn’t only a sports drama but focused on the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of the NFL, in a similar vein as “Moneyball” or “Jerry Maguirre.” Reitman is also Canadian, so I’m surprised he cares about American football at all. The point I’m making is “Draft Day” is a departure for the filmmaker and features few of his cinematic trademarks.

“Draft Day” is an inspirational sports movie but not the kind you’re use to seeing. Instead of focusing on an underdog player or team rising to the challenge and proving themselves, “Draft Day” is about an ethical man struggling to make the right decisions. People want Weaver to choose Callahan for the draft pick, a choice he is uncertain about. Yet the movie isn’t about Sonny’s soul, or people’s lives, or the future of the country. It’s about… Football? The movie tries to emphasize how important the sport is to the city of Cleveland. There are many lingering shots on bottom stickers and excited fans in the stadium stands. Multiple scenes are devoted to talk radio chattering about Ohio and how much football matters. Yet the focus remains on terse men making decisions in boardrooms. “Draft Day” tries to declare that sport team picks matter but it doesn’t convincingly make the case.

I don’t know shit about football. I couldn’t care less about it or any other sport. I get the parts about carrying a ball into a goal but don’t bother explaining yard lines, field goals or penalties to me. Any time I watch a sports-related movie like “Draft Day,” the script has to struggle to get me interested. “Draft Day” is heavily focused on the stats of the game, of which player means more. There’s a lot of chatter about the business of football, about trades and values. None of this means anything to me. “Draft Day” is about a subject I’m already disinclined to care about and focuses on an even more technical side of it. The movie does not make me care.

One could also make the case that “Draft Day” is a nearly two hour long commercial for the National Football League. Instead of making up a football league, the film was made with the direct involvement of America’s biggest sports federation. Actual team names are used. Aside from the Cleveland Browns, the film also directly mentioned the Atlanta Seahawks, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and many others. The NFL has had its share of controversies in recent memory. The long term effects of concussions, and the organizations’ handling of that topic, has made wave. This is aside from the violent, abusive, illegal actions of players, which the NFL is happy to sweep under the rug. “Draft Day” doesn’t reference any of this. The football player Weaver ends up picking talks about how he’s not in any gangs, how he lives cleanly. “Draft Day” represents a sanitized look at the football industry, about good men making hard decisions, and kindly doesn’t mention any of that other shit.

Kevin Costner’s days as a leading man in blockbusters are long behind him. “Draft Day” is exactly the kind of middling, middle-brow fare that Costner stars in these days. The film is in the same forgettable league as “Swing Vote” or “Black or White” or whatever this year’s model is. In other words, Costner is coasting on whatever appeal his white-bread, All-American charm had twenty years ago. In “Draft Day,” Costner spends the entire movie slightly peeved. He wears a facial expression conveying minor annoyance throughout all one hundred and fifty minutes of the movie. Occasionally, the character has outburst, kicking office chairs around, smashing desks, or tossing a computer into a wall. Costner mostly seems bored or agitated.

Playing Costner’s much younger love interest is Jennifer Garner. Like Costner, Garner’s career has seen better days. Once a viable candidate for America’s Sweetheart, Garner’s shots at big budget stardom never took off. This is why she’s in middle-of-the-road stuff like “Draft Day” and a dozen more like it. In “Draft Day,” Garner gets one or two scenes to herself. A notable moment has her pointing out that the top prize for the most macho game in the country is a piece of jewelry. She has a few private scenes with Costner, the two huddling inside a closest. Otherwise, the script doesn’t give Garner much room to create a proper character.

As minor as “Draft Day” is, Reitman continues to pull together a supporting cast full of recognizable names. Denis Leary plays the coach of the Browns. While the PG-13 rating –  appealed down from an R because of one use of “motherfucker” – doesn’t allow Leary to go on one of his trademark profane tirades, he still gets to bring some blustery energy to the part. Frank Langella shows up, playing a villain indistinct from the villain roles he played in Reitman’s “Dave” and “Junior.” That is, a bureaucrat trying to impede the efforts of the moral hero. Langella is not allowed to do much. Somehow, Ellen Burstyn was roped into appearing in this, as Weaver’s disgruntled mother. She does what she can to invest the routine material with some honest emotion but is strangled by the genre conventions the movie must follow. Her climatic heart-felt confession to Costner is eye-roll worthy.

Weirdly, “Draft Day” also packs the supporting cast full of cameos from known actors. Sam Elliott appears in one scene as the coach of a college football, gruffly announcing a few things before disappearing. Terry Crews appears in two scenes as the father of one of the drafted football players. Crews is presumably in the movie as a reference to his real history as an athlete.  His two scenes do not provide much oppretunity for Crews to utilize his considerable charm. (Crews’ seventies equivalent Jim Brown also has a cameo.) Sean Combs, otherwise known by Puff Daddy and a few other aliases, appears as the manager of another ball player. I don’t know why Puffy is in the movie. The bit parts come so fast that I can’t even remember what Rosanna Arquette, Chi McBride, and Tom Welling even did in this thing.

Ivan Reitman’s direction has always been unassuming. He gets the job done, pointing the camera at the actors and the action without drawing too much attention to himself. In his most recent picture, Reitman breaks that trend. “Draft Day” makes gratuitous use of split screens. Actors frequently walk between portions of the screen, dividing the screen further. Since so much of “Draft Day” is devoted to people chatting on the phone, this is a mildly clever way to show two people communicating. A timer counts down throughout the film, leading up the actual draft announcement in the final act. Whenever the film cuts to a new location, the name of the city and the corresponding football team appears on-screen. “Draft Day” is not a good movie but I’m giving Reitman some credit for at least trying to make it interesting to look at.

“Draft Day” breaks another trend that Reitman has utilized in almost every other movie he’s made. There’s a notable lack of pop songs on the soundtrack. Instead, the tense confrontations in boardrooms and offices are backed by John Debney’s score. Debney’s score is earnest and usually overwrought. Trumpets blare in triumph during the big scenes while soft strings play during the small scenes. Many of the sequences emphasizes the movie’s timeline are supported by nervous music, attempting to buff up suspense. Just as Reitman’s films from the late eighties and early nineties have music that immediately mark them as belonging to that decade, “Draft Day’s” score will probably be looked back on as indicative of the middle naughties. (Assuming people will remember this movie at all, which they won't.)

I am not the target audience for “Draft Day.” I don’t care about football, not even a little bit, to the point were I’m mildly hostile to the entire concept. That’s just a result of my life as a nerd and a dork. I’m not sure if people who actually care about football will get anything out of “Draft Day.” The reviews were mixed. The mediocre box office suggest that not many people could be brought to pay cash for “Draft Day.” If Reitman makes another film any time soon, it’s unlikely to be another dramatic experiment. [Grade: D]

This was not the most rewarding Director's Report Card. The shit I went through just so I could talk about the "Ghostbusters" movies... Reitman has made a few memorable movies, mostly with the help of Bill Murray or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Without a strong leading man, it seems his films range from forgettable to awful. It was frequently a struggle to say so much about such dire material. But whatever, it's done now. Reitman mostly works as a producer these days. His upcoming credits include - of course - the new "Ghostbusters" film and the upcoming feature adaptation of "Baywatch." Maybe that's the position the Canadian comedy maker should stay in. Considering the legacy of his few genuine classics, I still expect Reitman to cough out another forgettable flick or two before he officially retires from directing.

Coming up next on Film Thoughts!: New episodes of the Bangers n' Mash Show! New "Why Do I Own This?" and "Memories" columns! Some other stuff! Probably! See you soon!

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