In the history of movies, there have certainly been far lousier female characters than Jennifer Garner’s in Draft Day, but watching her storyline play out, I found myself thinking I’d rather have a film with no female characters than one given as little thought as hers. Ali is her name, and she’s not so much problematic as just a prop for the plot, there to enable Kevin Costner’s character, Sonny Weaver, Jr., the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, to man up, professionally and personally. She’s the romantic interest who strides around the office in 5-inch stilettos and a semi-sheer blouse and, because the movie is blithely well-behaved for one about professional football, no one leers or even notices. And she’s wasted potential, a figure that could have offered a glimpse of the female experience in an industry that’s traditionally been very masculine.
Draft Day, which opens in theaters today, is about the NFL draft, and because of that is a film centered on and almost entirely about dudes. Which is absolutely fine! So is the far better Moneyball, of which Draft Day is a pokier, hokier cousin. Pro sports are overwhelmingly male-dominated, on the field and in the behind-the-scenes realm of managers, agents, owners, and coaches in which Draft Day is set, over the single day in which Sonny tries to help his team and save his own skin after a disappointing last season, facing pressure from the Browns’ owner (Frank Langella) and coach (Denis Leary).
Ali begins Draft Day by adding an extra concern to Sonny’s growing pile by telling him that she’s pregnant and getting a less-than-enthusiastic response. And over the day, he keeps not quite managing to set things right in stolen moments between crises, during which she smiles and patiently demurs that she never expected anything from him before offering words of advice and affirmation. She’s a wish-fulfillment figure, like a sort of hot, free therapist who adores football and apparently has no expectations of the man she loves. Yes, the film’s focus is on Sonny, who — when he finally gets over his self-doubt and gets his mojo back — summons back all the good will Costner’s accrued from all his past sports movies, from Bull Durham to Tin Cup. But by making Ali one of Sonny’s co-workers and putting her conveniently in the office with him, Draft Day reveals just how little it cares about her inner life.
Ali is the Browns’ salary cap manager, and by her own account had to fight her way into the industry she cares so much about. But there’s no urgency or even agency given to her side of the relationship dilemma, despite the potential impact having a child, much less having a child by way of her secret relationship with someone she reports to, could have on the career that’s so important to her. She just waits for Sonny to make a decision, careful not to pressure him in any way, always understanding when the demands of the job interrupt. And because Draft Day’s is a cuddly, lightweight, PG-13 version of the NFL, Ali doesn’t have to take any shit from her co-workers, despite the fact that her sleeping with her boss is actually widely known, and though elsewhere they spend some time admiring a website listing all the conquests a potential draft pick has “smashed.”
There’s nothing about Ali that speaks to having been, as far as we’re shown, the only woman in the testosterone-heavy office in a story that’s essentially about a crisis of masculinity and father issues. When she shrugs off a joke about being sent to get coffee, it comes from Sonny’s even less consistent mess of a mom (Ellen Burstyn). Later, she faces down the coach, who wants her to try to bring Sonny over to his side — a scene that aims for empowering when she tells him not to condescend to her, but reads more as standing by her man. Garner’s a likable presence, but especially considering she’s most associated with an ass-kicking double agent on Alias, it feels like a waste to have her stand around and show off her dimples, and even more of one to see a film skim over all interesting workplace gender dynamics.
Garner, Burstyn, and Rosanna Arquette (who appears for second as Sonny’s ex-wife) appear to have been thrown in to make Draft Day more appealing for women in the would-be audience. But it’s the negotiations and power plays of the draft on which the film’s going to live or die, not halfhearted romantic and maternal plots that could easily have been excised without changing the final impact. It’s been years since director Ivan Reitman (of Ghostbusters and, more recently, No Strings Attached) has made a great movie, but despite an irritating split-screen motif used to liven up the many phone conversations, Draft Day is a solid enough effort, the kind of film you’d watch with your parents on cable. But it’d be better off without its romantic storyline than what it has, which doesn’t just shortchange a possibly fascinating and strong character but actually fits her around its protagonist. The film gives more personality to the many actors passing through to playing various football industry figures — Patrick St. Esprit, Chi McBride, Pat Healy, and even Sean Combs as a sleazy agent — than it does its female lead, so why even have one? Hollywood is in dire need of more stories from and featuring women, something that having one thoughtlessly wedged into a movie like this only underlines.