The ever-popular cinematic sports formula about the underdog who wins against apparently hopeless odds takes to the links in Bill Paxton’s well-meaning, nicely appointed but uneven biopic about Francis Ouimet, the young fellow from a distinctly lower-class background who, in the days that golf was an exclusively upper-crust pastime, was the unlikely winner of the 1913 U.S. Open, besting not only the American camp John McDermott but also top British players Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” adapted by Mark Frost from his non-fiction book on the contest, is an account of the game itself, of course; but it wants to situate the event within the context of the “democratization” of the sport, by telling both Ouimet’s story and that of Vardon and Ray. Those two, after all, came from un-aristocratic backgrounds themselves, and were always treated by their snooty patrons (including the newspaper mogul sponsoring their presence at the Open and the noble player who accompanied them) with a lordly condescension only one step removed from class-based contempt. So while golf-lovers may be most disposed to embrace the movie, its larger social message will also make it accessible, “Rocky”-style, to those who’ve never picked up a nine-iron.
Shia LaBeouf plays Ouimet, who grew up literally across the street from the course on which the Open was played and who (as we’re shown in early scenes where the character is played by Matthew Knight) was fascinated by the game (and Vardon) at an early age. But though Francis’ mother Mary (Marnie McPhail) tolerated his interest affectionately, his father Arthur (Elias Koteas), having experienced humiliating treatment at the hands of social superiors, tried to deter his son from taking up the sport. But the boy became a caddie at the country club, and his natural ability was soon noticed by some of its more enlightened members, who sponsored him in an amateur tournament, in which his father permitted him to compete only under condition that he’d give up the sport if he lost. When he failed to win, his avocation seemed over before it had even begun, but he was recruited anew for the Open, to which Vardon (Stephen Dillane)–a farmer’s son risen to golf greatness in England although his patrons still treated him with disdain, and Ray (Stephen Marcus), a great bear of a man with a powerful swing–were sent by press mogul Lord Northcliffe (Peter Firth) to bring the trophy to England. The contest that follows becomes, in the hands of scripter Frost and director Bill Paxton, an account of the tournament that focuses not only on the major players–Ouimet, Vardon, Ray and, to a lesser extent, defending champion McDermott (Michael Weaver)–but on Ouimet’s unlikely caddie, a pint-sized, hardscrabble kid named Eddie Lowery (Josh Flitter). And the picture takes time to show Francis’ halting romance with Sarah Wallis (Peyton List), a society girl whose father would hardly approve of their mutual interest.
It could hardly be said that the plot of “The Greatest Game Ever Played” follows a trajectory that’s in any way unexpected–even it this weren’t based on a true story, one could predict every narrative stroke–but the filmmakers manage to make it more winner than loser, if only by a hair. Frost keeps things clear, even if on the personal side he too often goes for the easy effects. LaBeouf evinces a nice sense of earnestness as Ouimet, even though the period clothes don’t succeed in hiding the fact that he never seems entirely in sync with the early twentieth-century setting; and though McPhail and Koteas strike fairly one-note effects as his parents (she sweetly concerned, he brusquely dismissive–and with an accent that could rival Jon Voight’s untraceable “Anaconda” one), and List isn’t significantly better as sweet Sarah (though she certainly has a pleasant smile), Flitter easily takes crowd-pleasing honors as the squat, cheeky caddie–a sort of Dead End Kid on the Links. Oddly enough, it’s the British side of the story that carries the greater resonance. That’s not because of either Firth or Marcus; the former offers a snide caricature, and though the latter gives Ray an imposingly gruff presence, he’s hardly subtle about it. But Dillane offers a performance of refinement and subtlety as Vardon, conveying the man’s sense of submerged resentment beneath a surface civility; in many ways he makes the Brit the most interesting, and affecting, character in the story. Weaver, on the other hand, is allowed to snarl and shout too much as McDermott.
Paxton’s work is as mixed as that of his cast. On the one hand, he and cinematographer Shane Hurlbut give the picture an elegant look, and work with the effects crew headed by Dennis Berardi and Pierre Rivard to devise some striking means to show the motions of the golf balls. But he’s not as successful in toning down some of the script’s more sentimental or otiose moments; this picture doesn’t exhibit the same degree of control as his first feature, “Frailty,” did, slipping too often into the sort of florid emotionalism that so often afflicts these kinds of uplifting sports tales. Brian Tyler’s score gets somewhat blowsy at times, too.
Despite the obvious flaws, though, Paxton’s sophomore feature is a reasonably diverting–and, in the portion of it dealing with Vardon, even insightful–effort. It doesn’t score a hole in one, or maybe even a birdie, but ultimately it sinks a close putt. So the title’s definitely an exaggeration; this isn’t a great game, but it’s a pretty good one.