An interesting discussion occurs about three-quarters of the way into this biographical picture about the guy who dominated U.S. golf in the 1920s and 1930s despite never turning pro, and who retired before he was thirty after becoming the only golfer ever to win the Grand Slam. During a confrontation in a clubhouse, there’s a conversation centering on the meaning of the word “amateur”–somebody who does something as an avocation, for the sheer love of it, rather than as a job or a means of getting rich. The moment is especially pertinent to the subject of the picture, but it’s also appropriate to “Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius” itself, because the movie too is extraordinarily amateurish, and not in the good sense: it’s rather like a stately, well-intentioned, dull small town pageant in which residents dress up in period garb to dramatize the life of some local celebrity.
But while it’s stiff and simplistic, “Bobby Jones” may nonetheless appeal to aficionados of the sport. The subject was, after all, a giant of the game–a kind of White Knight Babe Ruth of the links–and inveterate golfers will probably appreciate seeing his story dramatized with even a modest amount of fidelity, however clumsily. Jim Caviezel–and notice that I’m not going to resort to any cheap shots like “Jesus Hits The Links!”– is simply too old to be convincing in Jones’s early years, when he’s supposed to be a college student at the Georgia Institute of Technology. (In earlier segments the character is played by two boys, cute tyke Devon Gearhart and teen Thomas Lewis, neither of whom remotely resembles Caviezel and both of whom come across as stilted and hesitant, but in that respect they’re not unlike most of the supporting players.) As Jones ages, Caviezel becomes more physically convincing, but the actor’s customarily sober, dour persona remains a drawback throughout. (It must be said, however, that since Jones suffers from an ailment that causes him considerable abdominal distress, Caviezel’s habitually pained expression comes across as oddly appropriate.) Similarly, Claire Forlani is initially too mature as the Catholic girl whose father objects to her seeing a fellow of another faith (until he discovers who the boy–the already-famous Jones–is), but as the character ages (and marries Jones), her credibility increases, even if her motivations are never fully explored. Jeremy Northam struts and preens majestically as Jones’s main competitor–a high-living professional who’s sometimes friendly but can’t help but be miffed by his rival’s unworldly success. His broad approach is much more successful than that of Brett Rice, who never manages to seem genuine as Jones’s gregarious, supportive father, or Dan Albright, who plays his rigid grandfather (the small-town pageant standard is never more apparent than in their performances). Malcolm McDowell, on the other hand, underplays the part of an Atlanta reporter who becomes a boon companion to the family, to reasonably good effect.
The cast, however, can’t be blamed for the paint-by-numbers approach taken by co-writer and director Rowdy Herrington, who despite his given name, handles things in so staid, unhurried a fashion that the final product moves as slowly as a triple overtime tournament round–but minus any tension or suspense. The picture does, however, have a pretty good look. The locations have been well chosen, and much care has obviously been lavished on the costumes (designed by Beverly Safier) and other period detail (Bruce Miller was production designer), given what was undoubtedly a modest budget. The cinematography by Tom Stern is of professional standard, too. James Horner’s score, however, is overbearing in its drive to uplift our hearts.
So this is the sort of earnest, plodding docudrama that will appeal only to those already fascinated by its subject, and certainly it would be more at home on a second-string cable network than in theatres; Bobby Jones might have had a stroke of genius, but this reverential biography about him is a movie of mediocrity. It would also be far better off without the video introduction tacked on at the front, in which Caviezel and Forlani register their pride at being part of so exalted a project. With its halting delivery and bad jokes, it’s worse than most Oscar presentation speeches. Lose it, by all means.