Chuck Koplinski: Costner's performance a pick-me-up in 'Draft Day'
It's apparent from the start that director Ivan Reitman wants "Draft Day" to be to the NFL what "Moneyball" was to MLB, and for a while the film succeeds in being just that — a no-nonsense, behind-the-scenes look at how a major sports franchise is run and an examination of the personalities needed to make it a success.
As we see Sonny Weaver (a never-better Kevin Costner), the beleaguered general manager of the Cleveland Browns attempt to come to terms with how to improve his team on the most important day of his career, the film is as riveting as a sports drama can get. Unfortunately, when the movie strays away from the boardrooms where the future of professional football teams are determined, "Draft" gets bogged down by so many needless subplots and ridiculous circumstances that the whole enterprise flirts with being thrown for a loss.
Draft day has become a sort of late Christmas for NFL teams as, over the past decade, the process has become a media, fan-friendly event that, much like the Super Bowl, often fails to live up to the hype.
However, there's no question that the destiny of the 32 teams involved can be radically affected by the amateur players they choose to become pros.
It's a pressure cooker, one that organizations spend months preparing for and any unpredictable move from a team that chooses before you can scuttle the best laid plans.
This is the day Weaver lives for, as he thrives on the pressure though he knows the danger of deals made on impulse or in desperation.
The owner of the long-suffering Browns, Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), sticks his nose in where it doesn't belong, insisting that Weaver make a splash with his first-round pick, while Coach Penn (Denis Leary) proves difficult when he's kept out of the loop where the GM's plan is concerned.
Adding to Weaver's troubles is the fact that each of his top three choices has character flaws that worry him mightily, as he feels their negative traits may hurt their performance on the field.
These elements of the plot are handled with a sense of urgency and import that makes for good drama and Costner anchors it throughout. Weary, worried, looking as though he may crumble at any moment, the actor conveys the pressure Weaver is contending with in such a convincing way, the viewer is simply waiting for him to crack up on screen.
That's not to say he's a nervous wreck throughout — far from it, as he comes to rally and respond to the pressure like the seasoned NFL veteran he is, a reflection of Costner's career of late as he's proven a reliable presence in supporting roles ("Man of Steel," "Jack Ryan") and the lead in a criminally overlooked thriller ("3 Days to Kill"). Without the actor providing a solid center, the film would likely have spun out of control.
The reason is that screenwriters Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph load the film with ludicrous subplots that serve no other purpose than to take us away from the main action of the movie and make us question the sanity of its characters.
Weaver is romantically linked with a fellow Browns executive, Ali (Jennifer Garner), a self-proclaimed football junkie who can rattle off NFL minutiae with the best of them.
However, on the most important day of her partner's professional career, she decides to tell him they're expecting a baby.
I ask you — wouldn't a woman who is well aware of the stakes of the draft perhaps wait one more day to give Weaver this piece of news, so as not to add undue pressure to him?
But it doesn't end there, as later in the day the GM's mother (Ellen Burstyn) stops by, insisting that the ashes of her recently deceased husband — the former head coach of the Browns and Weaver's father, mind you — be scattered on the practice field named after him that very instant.
Again, this woman is aware of the stakes at hand and to suggest she would do this to her son at this moment is just plain stupid.
It's plotting such as this that bothers me most as the screenwriters think we're dumb enough to accept this as logical behavior.
It seems as though Reitman is attempting to pull elements from two opposing playbooks and run them at the same time. This is a recipe for disaster, but make no mistake, when "Draft" concentrates on the wheeling and dealing of professional football, the film cooks, especially during its third act when tables are turned and gridiron fortunes are lost and won.
These moments and Costner's fine work help the film go down as a win with little to spare.
'Draft Day' (3 stars out of 4)
Cast: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Frank Langella, Denis Leary, Tom Welling, Chadwick Boseman, Terry Crews, Sean Combs, Ellen Burstyn and Sam Elliot.
Directed by Ivan Reitman; produced by Ali Bell, Joe Medjuck, Gigi Pritzker and Reitman; screenplay by Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph.
A Summit Entertainment Release. 109 minutes. Rated PG-13 (brief strong language and sexual references.) At the AMC Village Mall 6, Carmike 13 and Savoy 16.
Also new in theaters
Von Trier reels the viewer in with 'Nymphomaniac: Vol. I' (3 stars). Ever the manipulator, director Lars von Trier is up to his old tricks once more with "Nymphomaniac: Vol. I," a film that undercuts audience expectations at every turn yet proves to be an interesting, if not fully engaging, character study. Not as titillating as the title would suggest, the movie is built on a simple premise that slowly builds to what I think will result into an intriguing game of cat-and-mouse.
I can only surmise that this is where von Trier is headed for as the title suggests, there's still another two hours of fun and games in the offing and the director is anything but predictable.
Out running simple errands, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) comes upon a young woman who's been savagely beaten and left in an alley. She is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and despite her sorry physical state her sense of self-preservation is still intact as she insists that the authorities not be summoned. Instead, Seligman takes her back to his apartment, gives her a cup of hot tea, a pair of jammies to slip into and a willing ear to bend ... or perhaps another fool to toy with.
With little prompting, Joe begins to regale her savior with a detailed and graphic account of her sexual adventures under the pretext that she wants to come to understand why she behaves as she does.
From the first innocent explorations of her sexuality as a little girl to playing a game of conquest of strangers on a train with a rival, the troubled woman tells her tales with a distinct lack of emotion.
As rendered by von Trier, these moments are graphic but artfully done, which is part of his power as a filmmaker.
His movies have always existed in an uneasy place between "groundbreaking" and "bad taste" ("Breaking the Waves," "Dancer in the Dark," "Melancholia," etc.), yet such attention to craft and detail are employed to the point that viewers find themselves captivated, so much so that you can't help but see these movies through to the end in order to see just what he has up his sleeve.
What's interesting about the film, and one of its major problems as well, is the lack of passion that's displayed by the main character.
The sexual acts she engages in lack passion and are undertaken in a frivolous manner, as a means of emotional escape or from an analytical point of view, as though Joe is studying her partners' responses to her behavior.
There's no true emotion displayed at any point and as result she's a bit of a cipher, a person we can't relate to or engage in. We have no emotional investment or connection to her and we can't help but look at her story as a case study and her as a subject.
By doing this, von Trier firmly puts us in Joe's shoes as we come to feel toward her the same way she feels towards her lovers. It's an interesting ploy but it hardly makes for engaged viewing as we come to look at her curiously and with little empathy.
There are many clues along the way that suggest that Joe is an unreliable narrator and that the tales she spins for Seligman may all be false; that she's manipulating him and us in turn by suggesting she's going to turn us on with her tales, only to pull the rug out from under us with her sense of self-loathing and the possibility that this is all a big con job.
We'll have to wait for volume two of the tale to get any answers and while I can't say my heart is invested in the film enough to be anxious to see how things end, my mind is hooked to the point that I'm curious enough to want to see if von Trier has something significant to say about Joe and her plight or if I'm just being played for a fool as well.
"Rio 2" a vibrant, predictable animated affair (2-1/2 stars). Much of the same is at play in "Rio 2," the sequel to the surprise 2011 hit that dealt with the misadventures of Blu (voice by Jesse Eisenberg), a Spix's Macaw raised in the frigid wilds of Minnesota of all places, who finds out that he's not the last of his breed when he's shipped to Rio de Janeiro to meet Jewel (Anne Hathaway), the last female of his kind.
This gave director Carlos Saldanha the excuse to create a vibrant, loving tribute to his hometown as the city was seen as a festive metropolis brimming with life and possibilities.
"Rio 2" shifts locations, as most of the action takes place in the jungles surrounding the Amazon River, but it's just as joyous and bright as its predecessor as it celebrates the strength that comes from family and friends.
Attempting to settle in to their new home and roles as parents, Blu and Jewel are whisked away to unfamiliar environs when their ornithologist owners Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) and Linda (Leslie Mann) discover a group of Spix's while releasing a rare bird along the Amazon.
Once the newly-marrieds meet this new flock, Jewel discovers that her father (Andy Garcia) is among them as well as her old flame Roberto (Bruno Mars).
Bad enough, Blu is feeling out of place amidst all his new relations but he must also contend with his old nemesis Nigel (Jermaine Clement) who's out to exact vengeance.
The film touches briefly on the evils of the deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest, a token mention as if to assuage Saldanha's conscience, as he's far more interested in the animated Busby Berkeley musical numbers that dominate much of the movie. Thankfully, these sequences are imaginatively executed and a joy to take in.
It comes as no surprise that the highlight is executed by Broadway veteran Kristin Chenoweth, a welcome addition as the tree frog Gabi, who believes that her touch will prove lethal to her love Nigel, who's clueless where her affections are concerned, which she laments with the song "Poisonous Love."
The scene follows the standard approach the film takes with the music getting louder and louder and the visuals becoming more and more manic as the song goes on.
However, Chenoweth, with her expressive voice, cuts through the mania to convey her character's angst.
The usual suspects are on hand throughout with George Lopez, Tracy Morgan and Will.I.Am reprising their roles of Rafael, Luiz and Pedro, respectively.
They provide the broad comedy that will appeal to the little ones as the adults search for something in the narrative to hold their interest.
For what it is — a standard animated feature that's a pleasant time-waster — "Rio 2" does all we expect it to.
That it does little more is as regrettable as it is expected.
For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at email@example.com.