In an extreme change-of-pace from his previous effort as a director, the underrated psycho-thriller “Frailty,” Bill Paxton now gives us, in the new golf-themed drama “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” a simple exercise in sports nostalgia and the triumph of the individual over adversity. This is one of those films where you could probably guess what occurs during it with surprising accuracy, even if you had no knowledge that it was based on a true story. Therefore, this is the kind of film where the success or failure is dependent less on the story than in how the story has been told.This time, the individual is Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf), a young golf prodigy who overcomes both prejudice due to his lower-class upbringing and the antipathy of his father (Elias Koteas) to find himself challenging golf legend Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane) in an extraordinary match to win the 1913 US Open. This is not as easy as it sounds as it appears that everyone seems to be aghast and offended at the mere thought of him playing in a gentleman’s game–the hoity-toity elite constantly refer to him as a peasant and do everything in their power to blackball him while his poor-but-honest father (Elias Koteas) is offended at the idea of his son ignoring his hardscrabble origins to fritter away his life on such a game. The only people who really seem to be on Ouimet’s side are his adorably portly young caddy (Josh Flitter), a sweet rich girl (Peyton List) and, oddly enough, Harry Vardon himself, who recognizes in Ouimet a kindred spirit because of their similar backgrounds and devotion to the sport.
The problem is that Paxton and writer Mark Frost treat what seems on the surface to be a reasonably compelling story in a fairly ham-handed fashion–hardly a scene goes by without someone reminding Francis (and us) that golf is a game for gentlemen and that he is too shabby and uncouth to ever hope to succeed at it (even during the final holes of the last match). And while the film luxuriates in the details of what playing golf was like back in 1913, many of those scenes have been tricked out with highly obtrusive CGI effects to show the trajectory of many of the shots. While I understand the idea behind this–the film wants to put us into the heads of the golfer and illustrate the keen focus that allowed them to make seemingly impossible–the reality is that they do nothing but distract from the drama of the shots themselves by taking viewers out of the moment.There are some nice things here and there in “The Greatest Game Ever Played”–the performances from LaBeouf and Dillane are strong and Paxton shows a nice flair for period detail in the scenes not jacked up with special effects. While I can’t entirely recommend it, I do have a certain affection for it and I would suggest that if it sounds like a film that might appeal to you–whether you are a golf fanatic or you just like films in which underdogs triumph over adversity, you might want to ignore most of what I’ve said and check it out for yourself.