Advertisement

Archive for Friday, September 30, 2005

Unlikely champ

Against steep odds, ‘Greatest Game’ lives up to its hyperbolic title

September 30, 2005

Advertisement

"The Greatest Game Ever Played"?

The Colts were in it. Or the Red Sox. Knute Rockne was on the sideline.

Didn't it determine the ACC basketball championship? Wasn't Jack Morris on the mound until the 10th inning?

Or maybe it was an epic round of golf.

Stop your laughing. Or yawning. Director Bill Paxton has turned Mark Frost's book on the playoff in the 1913 U.S. Open into a jazzy, snazzy crowd-pleasing sports drama. He overcomes the inherent dullness of golf observed by taking a good story, a good cast and every technical trick in the cinematic book to create the best golf movie since "Tin Cup," and the only golf drama that's ever worked.

It's a story of class - who had it, who didn't, and who struggled against it in Edwardian England and early-20th-century America. Stephen Dillane is the stoic legend Harry Vardon, a man who faced class prejudice from the day in 1879, on his home isle of Jersey, when the men in the black coats showed up to displace his family to make way for a golf course.

"The Greatest Game Ever Played"

"The Greatest Game Ever Played"

"What's golf?" the child Harry asks.

"It's a game played by gentlemen," one huffs, "and not for the likes of you."

Vardon took up the game and became its first great professional. He wrote books and toured. That's when young American Francis Ouimet met him.

Francis grew up next to the course in Brookline, Mass. He caddied for years. He might have had a career, but his immigrant father (Elias Koteas) disapproved.

"A game doesn't give a man what he needs to make a life," he says. And when that doesn't sink in, he adds, "A man knows his place and makes his peace with it."

Vardon, nicknamed "The Stylist," endures the slights of the British ruling class. Francis (Shia LaBeouf) is losing that same class war right under his own roof. Both actors let us see the weight these men - the legend and the lad - carried.

Francis couldn't let his father's disapproval or the "Caddy Boy" put-downs of lesser players at Brookline keep him down. Events conspire to put him into the 1913 Open. And his game puts him in a position to stare down the Brits and country-club Americans who figure that trophy is theirs, either by right or by reputation.

Movie
The Greatest Game Ever Played *** 1/2

The greatest game ever played involves golf? Stop laughing. Or yawning. Director Bill Paxton has turned Mark Frost's book on the 1913 U.S. Open playoff into a snazzy, crowd-pleasing sports drama. He overcomes the inherent dullness of golf observed through a good story, a good cast and every technical trick in the book.

Get movie listings, reviews, and more at lawrence.com

There are lots of predictable "big game" cliches in this one - a love interest with the "girl above his station" - his Irish mother's indulgence. But the best Disney movie since "Miracle" scores by hewing close to the facts, which are enough.

Francis got a cherubic little smart-mouth to caddy for him. Eddie (Josh Flitter) is just a mascot, but he has enough golf savvy to be of use.

"Read it, roll it and hole it," he says before a putt. "Easy peazy lemon squeezy."

Sound advice when you're in a nerve-wracking playoff with the greatest names in golf.

Paxton found ways to visualize the way a champion shuts out the distractions and sees only the ball, the fairway and the hole at the end. He steps up the tempo with terrific montages of picture perfect swings, picture perfect drives and textbook putts.

He overdoes it, from time to time. We really don't need to see a digital ladybug alighting on a digitally rendered golf-ball.

And the story is so narrowly focused on a couple of days of that tourney on that course that there isn't much room for character development beyond "types." The immigrant dad sneering at the boy's choice of sport over work was old when "Body and Soul" had it in the '40s.

The title will start a thousand arguments in a thousand sports bars. But Paxton and Frost make their case. This is the movie that mediocre "Bobby Jones" film should have been. Yes, golf can be exciting on the screen. It just needs a lot of help.

Comments

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.