No matter how good a particular athlete may be in their chosen sport, they usually rely on a coach or manager of sort to keep them at the peak of their game or get them back on track should something go amiss. Golfers are no exception, but they go one step further in such regards by using caddies who are present for more than just lugging the clubs around or keeping score. They also know the courses intimately and offer advice on what club to use, the speeds of the greens, and when to lay up or go for broke.
Such a person is the liveliest character in "The Greatest Game Ever Played," a period drama about a golfer that you've probably never heard of. Back in 1913, a former caddie, Francis Ouimet, entered the U.S. Open as an amateur and turned the golfing world on its head with his play against the far more seasoned pros of his day.
Not being familiar with the real story behind the film, I can't attest to the portrayal of the former caddie's caddie played by young Josh Flitter as if channeling a rotund and testy, middle-aged man who doesn't suffer fools easily. After watching this mediocre pic, however, I can say that perhaps directors need movie caddies with them when making their films.
The "golfer" in question here is actor turned director Bill Paxton who cut his directorial teeth on the gothic suspense flick "Frailty." Obviously a bigger scale production with at least 72 holes of potential and then some, the film looks great thanks to the work of cinematographer Shane Hurlbut, production designer Francois Seguin and costumer Renee April. Even composer Brian Tyler's score -- while quite familiar to something I've heard before but can't place -- works rather well.
Alas, looks can only go so far, and it's with the screenplay and direction that the film somewhat falters. Everyone loves an underdog tale, especially when the protagonist strives to win despite the odds and class-based bad attitudes stacked against him. Yet, the script by Mark Frost (from his book of the same name) doesn't take a full swing at that ball. Most of the characters and relationships are only superficially drawn, and we're never allowed to get to know them well enough to engage our minds or especially our hearts.
Sure, there's the strained father-son element, the idol-protégé one and even the budding romance one despite the girl in question coming from the family with the worst of the condescending attitudes. Unlike last year's other period sports flick "Cinderella Man," though, Paxton is just skimming the surface, using a putter when a sand wedge would be more appropriate for digging deep into these characters and their social/class settings. As a result, there are too many characters with only meager defining elements rather than a few with many (as was the case with Ron Howard's boxing film).
Then there's Paxton's direction that -- while competent -- is in need of that movie caddie. When things should be building in dramatic suspense, he lays up, while the mundane elements -- namely the rounds themselves -- get the full-swing, driver treatment.
Beyond borrowing the "in the zone" moments from films such as "For Love of the Game" (the Kevin Costner baseball flick where everything else "disappears" due to intense concentration on the task at hand), Paxton goes overboard with the golfing effects.
You name the angle, tracking shot, sound effect or what have you that can be imagined for following a ball from the tee to the hole and it's been included here. Such moments can't help but be viewed as an attempt to spruce up the otherwise rather staid drama.
Considering the sketchily drawn characters, the performers are obviously playing with a handicap, but a few manage to turn in decent score. Beyond Flitter who will either amuse or irritate you depending on your tolerance for over the top, precocious characters, Shia LeBeouf ("Constantine," "I, Robot") plays the long-forgotten sports figure; Elias Koteas ("Collateral Damage," "Harrison's Flowers") is his father who sees golf as an unproductive and worthless activity; and Stephen Dillane ("King Arthur," "The Hours") plays the British legend who's still competitive but has obviously passed his peak.
His is potentially the most interesting character, what with hints of a potentially career ending or at least dampening hand tremor as well as repeated flashbacks to an obviously catalytic moment in his childhood that still haunts him in adulthood. Alas, little comes of either element. The likes of Marnie McPhail as the boy's mother, Stephen Marcus as Vardon's golfing partner and Peyton List as the alluring socialite are all decent, but similarly suffer -- actually, even more -- from their marginally personified characters.
Okay, but noticeably bland and rather superficial in terms of character, "The Greatest Game Ever Played" looks great but obviously needed a caddie to show its golfer how to play the game to win or at least get a better score.