"Draft Day" may eventually be known as the film that launched a thousand new football fantasy leagues.

And just like a typical sports fantasy league, this film isn't exactly well-grounded in reality, but it offers enough breathless fun to make viewers not care.

The timing is perfect. "Draft Day" hits theaters Friday, about a month before one of the most hotly anticipated pro football drafts in years. There's always huge hype surrounding the NFL draft -- the only major sports draft broadcast on prime-time TV and lasting multiple days -- but this year seems to be unmatched when it comes to rabid fans gobbling up every last crumb of player information, statistics and draft news and rumors on the most obscure websites. Releasing a Kevin Costner sports film that pulls back the curtain on the draft process -- with all its frenetic horse-trading, rampant rumors and angry-or-delirious fan reactions -- is marketing genius.

Costner, Hollywood's go-to guy when it comes to sports movies, plays Sonny Weaver Jr., the relatively new general manager tasked with resurrecting the lowly Cleveland Browns with a fresh influx of talent on draft day.

Costner is on familiar ground. Like Crash Davis in "Bull Durham" (too old), Ray Kinsella in "Field of Dreams" (people think he's nuts) and Roy McAvoy in "Tin Cup" (washed-up), Weaver has two strikes against him from the start. He works in a city that's crazy about its football team and is surrounded by people who hate him. Fans hate him for firing his legendary coach of a father (who has recently died). His head coach (Denis Leary) hates him for making a seemingly bone-headed trade. And his boss, team owner Harvey Molina (Frank Langella), is ready to fire him unless he makes a splash on draft day.

Throw in a (mostly unnecessary) secret relationship with the team's financial guru (Jennifer Garner, looking as hot as pumped-up football fans would want her to), the sudden prospect of becoming a father, a meddling mother (Ellen Burstyn) and nonstop pestering from players, agents and fellow football general managers, and you have a protagonist whose head may be about to explode.

But there's a reason why Costner has made so many good sports movies. He has a knack for comfortably playing a guy who maintains a shaky composure amid a world of pressure. He's the main reason the film works as well as it does. Never mind that "Draft Day" comes off like the world's biggest ESPN/NFL commercial. With rapid-fire split-screen shots, long aerial views of various NFL stadiums and cities, and what appears to be real footage of screaming fans, director Ivan Reitman has made a nonaction movie feel like an action movie.

Costner often thrives when his characters must choose between what they believe to be right and what the rest of the world wants them to do -- and it's a line his character straddles throughout the entire film. He's managed to mortgage the Browns' future for the right to draft the player everyone feels represents a franchise-rescuing talent, quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence). Only Weaver is having second thoughts and is caught between being a decisive leader and a guy smothering himself in regret. This is where Costner's characters occasionally wilt into being the prototypical nice guy. Not this time. Costner obviously knows that while successful general managers can be nice guys, at day's end, it's a tough guy's game, and the GM has to absolutely be in command. He pulls it off nicely.

Reitman, who directed comedy classics "Stripes" and "Ghostbusters," injects just enough humor to keep "Draft Day" from going overboard with the machismo. But there's no doubting the film runs on adrenaline, which helps cover for its draft-day hyperbole and scenarios so wild they could only exist on the big screen. (Then again, Mike Ditka once traded all of his draft picks for a single player, Ricky Williams, who turned out to be a bust). Football lacks the built-in American romanticism that works so well in baseball movies. My fear going in was that "Draft Day" would be too much like Oliver Stone's football film "Any Given Sunday" -- peppered with a big-name ensemble cast, yet completely unable to overcome its lack of believability with a decent story driven by compelling characters.

To the credit of Reitman and screenwriters Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph, "Draft Day" is a football film with enough inside references to satisfy football fans and enough laughs, polish and story depth to appeal to nonfootball fans. Of course, it's somewhat laughable at times, but "Draft Day" never claims to be a documentary, nor does it go overboard with the football cliches and simplicity that smother other football films.

If success for "Draft Day" is being entertaining, and pumping up an audience to the point that some viewers will start dreaming about being an NFL general manager, it scores.

Contact Tony Hicks at Facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.TonyHicks or Twitter.com/insertfoot.

'Draft Day'

* * *

Rating: PG-13 (brief strong language and sexual references)
Cast: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary, Frank Langella, Ellen Burstyn, Chadwick Boseman
Director: Ivan Reitman
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Online: From "Bull Durham" to "Field of Dreams," Kevin Costner is the king of sports movies. For a slideshow of some of his most memorable roles, go to www.mercurynews.com/movies.