Review: Kevin Costner’s winning performance anchors the smart and charming ‘Draft Day’

Ivan Reitman's early comedies leaned heavily on the idea of the scruffy underdogs who managed to retain their personal quirks within systems designed to break them down. Whether it was the rowdy campers and counselors of “Meatballs” or the shabby soldiers of “Stripes” or the Ghostbusters, Reitman's movies seemed to celebrate these characters and the entire idea of rebellion.

After those films, though, he became an A-list director whose movies seemed to lean on high concepts that were much less interesting. “Legal Eagles” and “Twins” were both dispiriting efforts that leaned heavily on movie star charisma in place of actual scripts and characters. In general, any film Reitman made with Arnold Schwarzenegger felt like a total refutation of the things that Reitman did well.

The one bright spot in his post-“Ghostbusters” filmography was “Dave,” which started as a sharp and funny script, and if “Draft Day” feels like any of his prior films, it's “Dave.” It's nice to see a comedy that is about adults simply doing their jobs, without any ridiculous high-concept grafted onto things. The NFL draft is a huge business event now, and for sports fans, it is the moment each year when all things are possible. The script by Scott Rothman & Rajiv Joseph does a wonderful job of laying out not only the stakes but the process in a way that even someone who has never paid attention to football can understand, and Reitman seems to take great pleasure in simply standing back and letting his cast play the material.

There are some strong directorial choices in the film, in particular the way Reitman uses split-screens to keep the dialogue-heavy film light and engaging. It also helps that Kevin Costner has never been a guy who works too hard for a punchline. I think Costner has wicked comic timing, but he makes it look easy, which means people frequently underrate him. He makes a great center for the film as Sonny Weaver Jr., the general manager for the Cleveland Browns. His father, Sonny Weaver, was a legendary coach for the Browns, and Sonny Jr. earned the scorn of the city when he fired his own father.

Heading into draft day, Sonny knows that everything comes down to the choices he makes on this particular day, and he starts things off badly with a trade that earns them the first pick of the day, but at the expense of their first-round picks for the next three years. It seems like it might be worth it if they can get their hands on Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), a quarterback who has already been anointed “the next big thing.” That's obviously a matter of some concern for Brian Drew (Tom Welling), who is already the quarterback for the Browns, working his way back after an injury sidelined him. It's also upsetting for Ray Jennings (Arian Foster) and Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), two players who felt like they had a shot at being early-round picks by the Browns. More than anyone else, Sonny has to impress Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), owner of the Browns, because he has no real faith that Sonny is going to turn things around.

Even as Sonny struggles with his professional problems, he's also got to grapple with his relationship with Ali (Jennifer Garner), the lawyer whose job it is to keep some control of the salary caps for the team, and he also has to contend with the difficulties he has in dealing with Barb Weaver (Ellen Burstyn), his mother. It makes for a hell of a day, and the real pleasure of the film is watching how Sonny handles all of this in a way that is both credible and dramatically satisfying.

The film earns some big laughs, but it never sacrifices character for a punchline. Instead, the humor comes from knowing just how much pressure there is on Sonny and watching how he contends with each new obstacle. Considering how much pressure there is inherent to the film's ticking clock set-up, it actually feels very controlled, very mature. Sonny uses other people's impressions of him to help him maneuver through a system where everyone is out to not only gain an advantage for themselves but to also screw the competition as much as possible.

Costner carries the movie comfortably, and he makes a perfect center for a large ensemble cast in which almost everyone gets to play several great moments. Even guys who show up for one scene like Pat Healy (currently headlining the awesome “Cheap Thrills,” which you really should see as soon as possible) manage to shine because they all have something interesting to do. There's an air of credibility to the film that also makes it interesting. They shot much of the film in real NFL facilities, and they shot their draft scenes during the actual NFL draft.

The film does a nice job of showing just how much football means to some communities, and it also illustrates how brutally difficult that one day can be for the players themselves as they suddenly have their entire life up to that point summed up in one moment that determines their worth. I think Terry Crews does particularly nice work as Earl Jennings, a former Browns player who wants his son to play for the same team he did, and I am more convinced than ever that Chadwick Boseman is a force to be reckoned with as a performer. Denis Leary is a strong match for Costner as Coach Penn, who Sonny isn't convinced can actually lead a team, and the totally different types of energy they bring to things make a nice contrast as they bounce off each other.

There are some missteps. The relationship between Sonny and Ali is a secret, and it seems like an idea that was introduced simply to create tension, not because these two people would actually keep it a secret. There's also a running thread involving an intern that is fine, but it feels like a different movie. Because there are so many narrative balls in motion, it pulls focus away from the mechanics of what Sonny's doing, which is the most interesting thing happening. It feels like they didn't trust the audience to stay involved so they threw these other things in to hedge their bets.

Technically, it's a handsome film, and Eric Steelberg does a great job of capturing some real-life events with style and control. Reitman's early work was marked by a distinct lack of technical polish, and he seems to have embraced a very simple aesthetic here that works in the film's favor. John Debney's score never overwhelms, adding a strong sense of momentum to the film.

“Draft Day” works first as a character comedy, second as a workplace comedy, and it that rare bird, a mainstream comedy that seems to treat adults as actual smart human beings. If you're a diehard football fan, you may draw some extra pleasure from the dozens of small inside jokes peppered throughout, but even for non-fans, “Draft Day” delivers.

“Draft Day” opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.