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Thank heaven for the actual NFL draft. Or at least, the fictional version of it you see in the final half-hour of Ivan Reitman’s “Draft Day.” It saves the film from being pretty bad.

You’ll remember that it was Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” that introduced film audiences to the somewhat unfamiliar notion that the devious shenanigans of the front office high priests and buccaneers in the world of professional sports could make for a pretty exciting and dramatically pointed movie.

And so it does in the final half-hour of “Draft Day,” opening tonight, where we discover whom the beleaguered general manager of the struggling Cleveland Browns (Kevin Costner) is going to pick as his No. 1 college draft choice.

This is a guy having one tough week. His father, a legendary football coach, has just died, which means his mother (Ellen Burstyn) wants to march out on the team’s practice field and scatter his ashes there. His girlfriend, the team’s money cruncher (Jennifer Garner), has just informed him she’s pregnant and he didn’t exactly handle it like a romantic all-star.

And his owner (Frank Langella) has told him that he jolly well expects his GM to draft the Heisman Trophy winner – an ace QB named Bo Callahan – as the No. 1 choice in the draft. After all, didn’t the GM trade away three straight years of the team’s No. 1 draft choices to get a shot at Callahan in the first place?

Pay close attention, by the way, to Langella as the team owner. He wears shades throughout the whole movie, indoors and out. You can, if you choose, think it’s a good actor making a smart actor’s choice about the character he’s playing. Me, I’m guessing it’s just Langella doing everything possible to hide as much evidence as possible that he’s actually in this movie, lest anyone remember the fact.

As if all that weren’t enough of an assault on the blood pressure of an NFL team’s general manager, the movie that’s telling his tale begins with the unmistakable bombastic bark of ESPN’s Chris Berman narrating the bloody thing.

If it seems to promise to be a long evening (or afternoon), so it is until the final 40 minutes or so give us a payoff that actual moviegoers can live with on the way out to the parking lot without thinking the whole experience a crashing waste of time.

This was the movie they were originally going to make in Buffalo about the Bills until Cleveland and the State of Ohio offered sweeter and more seductive financial incentives to film there. For their troubles, the film makes it very clear it thinks of Cleveland as a poor, struggling, uninteresting lakeside wasteland except for everything that goes on with its No. 1 sports team. (Which, we’re reminded, was previously stolen by the city of Baltimore in a round of plutocratic vileness among football’s ownership class.)

It is Cleveland’s GM whom his Seattle counterpart considers stupid and desperate enough to give away the store (as in three successive years of No. 1 draft picks) just to get Callahan. “I have the Golden Ticket,” says Seattle’s weasel. “If I give it to you, you get to save football in Cleveland.”

Which, the movie makes crystal clear, is, in its view, the only reason anyone would want to live in Cleveland. No one even mentions the Cavaliers, for pity’s sake. Let’s not even talk about the culture. And just think – Buffalo could have been treated that way in the film.

Meanwhile, back in the chaotic life of our sorely tested general manager, we in the audience have long since discovered that this movie, despite a few funny lines salted here and there by comic veteran director Reitman (“Ghostbusters,” “Twins”) is nothing but a soap opera with a rather defective sense of dramatic rhythm and a tin ear for dialogue.

Stay with it. The cavalry comes in the film’s last half-hour to save the thing from its opening minutes of rather pitiless badness.

It goes without saying, I hope, that unless you’re into football in general, and the NFL in particular, this movie about winning and losing and whether character counts in such matters may well seem like a waste of a soapy story that could have worked in a better milieu. (Country music, anyone? Politics?)

Sean Combs, the former Puff Daddy, plays star quarterback Bo Callahan’s cynical agent. Buffalo Bills GM Russ Brandon has a scene – and a line – when the Browns’ GM gets around to seeing if the Bills, on Draft Day, have anything he wants.

The movie, of course, is smart enough to remind us that the NFL draft doesn’t necessarily mean squat. The Baltimore Ravens’ defensive gamebreaker Ray Lewis was picked 26th, and the New England Patriots’ future Hall of Fame QB Tom Brady went 199th.

The City of Buffalo should, no doubt, understand. When it came time to make this movie, we just didn’t have enough to be the filmmakers’ No. 1 pick.

The movie finally becomes watchable because of its pseudo-“Moneyball” ending, but if you ask me, aside from all that movie money the city could have used, we dodged a bullet.

DRAFT DAY

2½ stars

Starring: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary, Sean Combs, Frank Langella and Ellen Burstyn

Director: Ivan Reitman

Running time: 105 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for language and sexual references.

The Lowdown: On the NFL’s Draft Day, the beleaguered general manager of the Cleveland Browns has to figure out whom to pick at No. 1.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com