PG for some brief mild language
September 30, 2005
Shia LaBeouf, Stephen Dillane, Justin
Ashforth, Peter Firth, George Asprey
Walt Disney Pictures
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The Greatest Game Ever Played
By Nathaniel Bell
- No matter how you slice it, The Greatest Game Ever Played will probably play much better for those who haven’t seen many sports movies. Proudly wearing its heart on its sleeve, this earnest, conventional Disney film is calculated to please, although you can hear the gears of the plot grinding away from the first frame to the last.
Based on a true story, the film recounts the tale of Francis Ouimet, a 20-year-old caddy from Brookline, Massachusetts, who defies social prejudice and tees off against legendary English golfer Harry Vardon during the 1913 U.S. Open. The odds, of course, are stacked insurmountably against him, and what’s more, his working-class father (Elias Koteas) refuses to endorse his son’s newfound mania. As played by Shia La Beouf, Ouimet is a gravely determined young man, and he is abetted by his spirited caddy (Josh Flitter), a 10-year-old motor mouth whose dogged enthusiasm provides ample comic relief.
Adapted by Mark Frost from his nonfiction book, the film is intent on establishing a firm sense of class conflict, which it does with a heavy hand. Beginning with a vivid flashback in which a group of cadaverous 19th century noblemen demolish a peasant’s house to make way for an 18-hole course, it’s quite clear that we will be witnessing a battle twixt the blue bloods and the bourgeoisie. In its nascent stages, the great game of golf was reserved for the cream of society, and the elitism perpetuated by Europe’s upper class is given plenty of screen time—there are enough stiff upper lips in this film to fill St. Andrews.
This basic tension is given emotional heft by Stephen Dillane’s quietly anguished performance as Vardon, whose persecution at the hands of sneering “gentlemen” continues to haunt him well into adulthood. His recognition of Ouimet as one of his own is the story’s most nuanced revelation, albeit one the filmmakers are unwilling to explore in close detail.
Director Bill Paxton, whose first film was the challenging and disturbing Frailty, opts to play it safe here, and submerges the film in tasteful restraint. Realizing that golf is frequently suspenseful but rarely exciting, he peppers the picture with distracting special effects whenever he suspects the audience is losing interest. Nevertheless, the visuals are often astonishingly rich, effectively conveying the lush greenness of the countryside and the posh, wood-paneled opulence of the American country clubs.
Ultimately, The Greatest Game Ever Played is a testament to the infallible structure of the underdog sports movie. In its resolutely old-fashioned way, Paxton’s film manages to push all the right emotional buttons despite an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. It may be a shopworn formula, but it’s a formula that works. It’s rated PG for some brief mild language.
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Nathaniel Bell is a film critic in Southern California. Review used
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