A filmmaker’s already teed off into the rough when he tries to deliver on a title like “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
Was the 1913 matchup of young American amateur Francis Ouimet against veteran British champ Harry Vardon in the U.S. Open the greatest ever? Maybe, but the excessively idyllic tone and repetitive action of Bill Paxton’s film result in an overlong fairy tale so loaded with fantasy gimmicks that the game itself often gets lost in the contrivances.
The film has a sweet, innocent spirit that’s a refreshing turnabout from actor Paxton’s sturdy directing debut on the horror tale “Frailty.”
Yet Paxton doesn’t know when to ease up on the saccharine, and even as he tries to freshen hackneyed sports cliches with a whimsical visual flair, he ends up embracing the same tired notes we’ve seen in an endless stream of underdog tales.
Paxton coaches fine performances from most of his cast, particularly Stephen Dillane as Vardon, the British links king who finds himself in an unexpected duel with nobody Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf), a caddy who gets into the open tournament because organizers wanted some local talent involved.
Adapted by screenwriter-producer Mark Frost from his book on the Ouimet-Vardon showdown, “Greatest Game” flits back and forth between the two men’s lives, dramatizing their early golf encounters as boys and focusing on the obstacles they had to overcome to play.
For Ouimet, it’s mainly his disapproving dad, a no-nonsense laborer played with awkward affectation and a weirdly shifting accent by Elias Koteas. On the flip side is Francis’ Irish mom (Marnie McPhail), a saint who secretly encourages her boy to seek his dream.
Coming from peasant stock, Vardon has had to fight his way into the game, and despite his champion status finds himself a second-class citizen among the lesser talents of golf’s “gentlemen” enthusiasts.
Paxton and Frost have a heavy-handed preoccupation with early 20th century class immobility, making the connection between Vardon and Ouimet’s humble roots and how they stood up to the uppercrust snobs, then pounding at it again and again.
Though his dramatic presence remains rather lightweight, LaBeouf (“Holes,” “Constantine”) continues to develop a comfortable, likable screen presence. In a restrained yet supple performance, Dillane (“The Hours,” “King Arthur”) deftly infuses Vardon with a blend of gravity and bemusement.
Essentially playing the same blustery role at two different stages are Stephen Marcus as Vardon’s tubby British golf pal and Josh Flitter as Ouimet’s chubby 10-year-old caddy, both supplying some of the movie’s comic highlights.
Paxton injects visual trickery that for a time helps enliven a game whose nail-biting drives and putts don’t necessarily translate to great on-screen drama.
The computer animation that simulates the sizzling flight of golf balls eventually becomes cartoonish and distracting. One golf ball driven directly at the camera is cute; by the 10th time Paxton does it, the duck-and-cover response it provokes in viewers has grown tiresome.
Likewise, the hallucinatory mind control Dillane’s Vardon exercises to put himself in a Zen frame of mind at the tee works once but becomes monotonous when it’s repeated.