Anyone vaguely familiar with the rules of golf knows that you may not improve your lie, ground your club in a sand trap, or — most grievous of all — subtract strokes from your score. This last one apparently never occurred to the makers of a new movie with the grandiose title The Greatest Game Ever Played, which purports to recount the “true story” of the 1913 United States Open, in which an untested twenty-year-old amateur named Francis Ouimet bested the great British champion Harry Vardon and Vardon’s beefy countryman Ted Ray in an eighteen-hole playoff. As biographer and screenwriter Mark Frost and actor-turned-director Bill Paxton tell it, the baby-faced Ouimet (here played by Constantine star Shia LaBeouf) sank a dramatic five-foot putt on the last hole to score a 72, one stroke better than Vardon’s 73. Such a pretty story. And completely bogus. As the record book shows, Vardon actually carded a 77 on playoff day at the Brookline Country Club, near Boston, and lost by five. Ray finished another shot back, at 78.
Whether we are expected to write this glaring falsification off to poetic license, or to the fantastic prerogatives of Walt Disney Pictures, is not entirely clear. But it doesn’t matter. Greatest Game is so bad in so many ways that a minor detail like the outcome of the big tournament seems almost irrelevant. In an attempt to capitalize on the success of its earlier sports-movie hits, Miracle, Remember the Titans, and The Rookie, Disney has set out for the golf course with moral uplift and emotional redemption in mind. But if you care about either sports or history, you’re likely to be teed-off. This highly sanitized, heavily costumed, dramatically inert nonsense makes last year’s dreadful golf biopic Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius look like a masterpiece. When Paxton first got behind the camera for the stylish 2001 horror flick Frailty, it looked like he might make a seamless crossover to the directorial ranks. Now, that’s not so evident.
Paxton’s narrative runs on two parallel but rather confused tracks — Ouimet’s and Vardon’s. The former, we are told, is a striving son of working-class parents (disapproving, frugal Elias Koteas and golden-hearted Marnie McPhail) who lives right across the road from Brookline and somehow starts playing the game as a caddie, even though caddies are not allowed onto the course. Young Francis’ idol, the elegant legend Vardon (Stephen Dillane), is also a child of poverty, having grown up in a thatched-roof cottage in rural Jersey, and he’s been long haunted by demons — represented here by four looming wraiths wearing black undertakers’ suits and stovepipe hats, who revisit throughout the proceedings. Enough already. Such literalism poses all kinds of questions about Paxton’s dramatic skill.
In any event, the two players (one 20, the other 43 when they finally square off) are both victims of golf’s exclusionary snob culture — a culture that still largely prevails almost a century later, despite the ascendancies of Lee Trevino and Tiger Woods. The son of a gardener (and a Catholic, to boot), the great Vardon is condescendingly offered a gig as a club pro; the son of a grime-faced French-Canadian laborer, Ouimet gains entry to Brookline’s snooty dining room only when he is sponsored to play in the US Amateur. There, the father of a rich girl who’s caught his eye (newcomer Peyton List) promptly sets Francis straight: “You may have been invited,” the aristocrat sniffs, “but don’t get the idea you belong.”
Screenwriter Frost, who also wrote the book on which Greatest Game is based, and Paxton confront class warfare with the kind of ham-handed sincerity usually reserved for an eighth-grade social studies course. They underscore their point with the presence of the burly giant Ted Ray (Stephen Marcus), who can smash a golf ball through a phone book with one swing of his brassy, and with a predictably unsavory collection of English posers and scornful American bluebloods. But the moviemakers also try the supercute approach, in the pint-sized (and pint-shaped) person of Francis’s ten-year-old caddie, Eddie Lowery (Josh Flitter). He’s a grubby, wise-ass imp who’s meant to represent plucky democracy itself, but even the kid’s dialogue rings false. “Read it. Roll it. Hole it,” this nipper advises Ouimet, bypassing the conventions of American slang, circa 1913, just as blithely as he ignores the taunts of the gallery.
The sport itself? Visually, it’s even less authentic than in Bobby Jones, despite attempts by Paxton and cinematographer Shane Hurlbut to depict golf swings and balls in flight from every weird, tricked-up angle. The texture and rhythm of the old Scottish game are completely lost here, and by the time Ouimet scores his big Open win, complete with tears of joy from Mum, overdue approval from Dad, a suggestive gaze from the rich girl, a triumphant ride on the shoulders of the gallery, and a moment of locker-room acknowledgment from Harry Vardon, we’ve been thoroughly Disneyfied. If you want to feel good about that, fine. But manipulative sentimentality, laid out in great gooey dollops, is the kind of hazard no moviemaker can hit out of, not with a whole bagful of trick shots.