A resolutely old-fashioned sports biopic that wouldn’t look out of place on Turner Classic Movies, “Bobby Jones — Stroke of Genius” chronicles the life of the legendary golfer, the only one in history to win the Grand Slam.
The picture, which in style resembles one of those four-walled family films from the ’70s, wouldn’t seem a likely prospect for commercial success. But the current mania for golf and thirst for family entertainment — not to mention the presence of a lead actor, Jim Caviezel, who happens to be starring in one of the most successful films of all time, “The Passion of the Christ” — might well lift this effort beyond expectations.
Director/co-screenwriter Rowdy Herrington, whose credits include the cult classic “Road House,” here tells the story of Jones’ life, or at least his childhood and golfing career, in a manner as leisurely as an early Sunday morning round of golf. Slow and stately and naturally filled with scenic vistas of sun-dappled golf courses, the film concentrates on conveying its subject’s high-strung personality and strong sense of morality.
Jones, born in the Deep South, overcame a sickly childhood to become a golf phenomenon while still a teenager. During his short but incredible career, he won 13 titles, including, in one four-month span, the U.S. Amateur, the U.S. Open, the British Amateur and the British Open. This earned him the title of Grand Slam Champion, a record that still stands. He played only in the summer, otherwise attending college and ultimately becoming a lawyer. He never relinquished his amateur status and retired from competitive golf at age 28.
He also was a strict perfectionist, driving himself both mentally and physically in ways that caused his health to suffer. During his career, he suffered through the early stages of a degenerative spine disease that eventually killed him, albeit not until he was nearly 70.
As depicted here, Jones was an aloof and withdrawn figure, and Caviezel plays him with a level of intensity and suffering that makes his recent Jesus look like a party animal. The relentlessly downbeat nature of the character eventually becomes a bit wearying, not to mention such pained admissions as “The longer I play this game, the harder it gets.” Would-be attempts at humanizing him like his meet-cute encounter with Mary (Claire Forlani), the beautiful young woman who would eventually become his wife, feel all too forced.
Herrington’s screenplay dutifully attempts to cover all the bases in depicting Jones’ career, from his injuring a young woman spectator with a golf club thrown in anger to his suffering from varicose veins. While it earns points for comprehensiveness, the film never seems to find a unified focus and suffers from the episodic nature so endemic to such biopics.
The film becomes markedly more entertaining with every appearance by Walter Hagen (Jeremy Northam), Jones’ archrival, a raconteur and bon vivant who, though fiercely competitive, enjoyed playing while drunk and clad in a tuxedo. As charmingly played by Northam, the character adds much needed humor to the proceedings. Also adding color is Malcolm McDowell as journalist O.B. Keeler, a mentor to Jones, though his schematic role includes such portentous pronouncements as “Money — it’s going to ruin sports!”