The Greatest Game Ever Played
Starring Shia LaBeouf and Stephen Dillane. Rated general. For showtimes, please see page 72
Remember Remember the Titans? I don't-and I reviewed it. Certain aspects of the production do remain in my memory: Denzel Washington, yelling and looking fierce; cuddly-cute but snarly football players; "inspirational" music. But, basically, it is a golden-hued, slow-motion vacancy.
This phenomenon bodes ill for The Greatest Game Ever Played, which is being advertised as another product from the studio (Disney) that brought you Remember the Titans, The Rookie, and Miracle. In other words, expect sports drama at its Seabiscuitiest: throwing off the shackles of doubt, the underdog, his iron will forged by sweat and tempered by the love of his family, strives for eternal glory on a wave of orchestral arrangements set on "uplifting".
But I actually love that stuff. The real problem, for me, is that the alleged greatest game takes place in the world of golf. Golf! The antitherapy! (You pay upwards of $200 to become more angry.) What's more, the story is completely unbelievable, even by inspirational-movie standards. It's 1913. Golf is dominated by Brits. In the States, it's a sport purely for the rich. An unranked 20-year-old amateur, Francis Ouimet, has a dream. He yearns to watch Harry Vardon, the dominant professional of the era, striding the fairways at a country club in Brookline, Massachusetts. Ouimet had been a caddy at the club and had furtively played the course. Blessed with immense talent, Ouimet qualifies at a regional tournament and is entered in the U.S. Open. Now Ouimet will face his hero on the course. No one is available to carry clubs for the ex-caddy, so Ouimet winds up taking on 10-year-old Eddie Lowery as his helper. The unlikely pair wind up being part of golf legend, credited with popularizing the sport in America.
Oddly enough, the story is completely true, right down to the pint-sized sidekick. Odder still, the movie is quite watchable, maybe even entertaining.
By sticking fairly close to the facts, the script heads in directions not taken by formula filmmaking. For example, Ouimet and Vardon (played by Shia LaBeouf and Stephen Dillane) are not antagonists in the movie. Both are decent, working-class men, allowed to play on rich men's courses for the benefit of their sponsors but denied membership in the clubs themselves. Their storied contest, fought on the eve of the First World War, therefore ends not in conquest but in melancholy, perhaps foreshadowing the transition of the empire from greying Britannia to callow America.
Bill Paxton, in a 180-degree turn from his eerie but restrained debut, Frailty, deploys the full arsenal of directorial tricks. We've got shots from over, under, and behind the ball, and balls moving slowly, loftily, crazily, and being blasted through trees and even a phone book. Although it is LaBeouf and Dillane who provide the gravity and drama of the story, it is Paxton who keeps us in the game to the point where I almost liked it.