Golf, with its leisurely pace and solitary conflict, is a difficult sport to capture on film. “The Greatest Game Ever Played” is a wonderful attempt to crack open the game by director Bill Paxton, who successfully navigates the perils of boredom to craft an excellent links drama.As a young, golf-obsessed, working-class caddy growing up at the turn of the century, Francis Ouimet (Shia LeBouf, providing excellent, intense work here) is mystified when his considerable skills are recognized, and he’s allowed to join the ranks of the elitist sport as an amateur player. While his father (Elias Koteas) objects to his aspirations, Ouimet struggles through failure, class prejudice, and self-doubt to find himself at the 1913 U.S. Open playing with, and eventually against, Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane), Ouimet’s personal hero, and the best player the game had known up to that point.
"Dead solid perfect"
While a game of exquisite challenge, golf doesn’t exactly lend itself easily to cinema. To think of the best golf movies around leads to the one and only selection: “Caddyshack.” “Greatest Game Ever Played” is the latest motion picture that desires to somehow overcome the distinct lack of cinematic qualities the sport has and, under the eye of director Bill Paxton, “Game” comes awfully close to perfection.
In his second feature directorial assignment, Paxton continues to develop into one of the best filmmakers around. With his 2002 debut, “Frailty,” Paxton demonstrated he could skillfully craft mystery and suspense. “Game” presents an even bigger challenge with its soft Disney roots, tricky period ornamentations, and problematical story. The tale of Francis Ouimet is not one of furious pace and constant triumph, but of steady determination and natural talent. Paxton emphasizes the gentle nature of the story by trusting the material to a certain extent, and permitting the silence of golf and the concentration of the participants to lead the action. If it sounds boring, I can assure you it isn’t. “Game” is about golf, and one of the finest challenges any sport has seen, but it’s also a character study on how great playing comes from sportsmanship and skill, which makes for wonderful drama.
Maybe fearing a little disinterest in the subject matter from the audience, Paxton comes armed with some frantic visuals to help goose the excitement. Most encourage the pace of the film; such as the kinetic way Paxton follows the golf balls in mid-flight, enjoying the fine details of the course and its accouterments. While others, like a blitzkrieg rain montage or a scene capturing a ladybug as it peacefully lands on a golf ball just before impact, go a little overboard in the style and ambition department. Paxton also indulges broadly when it comes to Ouimet’s detractors, who are one step away from moustache-twirling monsters. In the overall context of “Game,” the thickly underlined negativity surrounding Ouimet, from his disapproving father to boorish, class-obsessed golf enthusiasts, is necessary to paint a bigger portrait of the era. Paxton’s smooth abilities behind the camera really ease the unpleasantness in these sequences, for fumbled cartoonish villainy is a quick way to a headache in lesser films.
One character that could potentially become a clichéd brute is Harry Vardon, Ouimet’s idol and competition. “Game” actually opens with Vardon’s vivid childhood travesty of having his poor family relocated so their land could be cleared to make room for a golf course. The men in charge of Vardon’s trauma are a constant source of anxiety for the player, and Paxton keeps the images of these ghoulish men always in sight, giving Vardon very sympathetic motivations and reminding the viewer that he is not Ouimet’s enemy, but a fellow professional with his own concerns and doubts. Wonderfully played by Stephen Dillane, Vardon is a great adversary for Ouimet, but one that simply wants to play him, not destroy him.
As the competition heats up, along with Ouimet’s fame, “Game” does fall into the trappings of a typical underdog story. However, Paxton has earned the right to indulge some audience-pleasing theatrics through his dedicated direction and smart casting.The odds were against Paxton from the beginning: period drama, golf, Disney…it didn’t seem possible to overcome such handicaps. Yet, “Greatest Game Ever Played” is a studied, thoroughly entertaining sports drama that defies all expectations, returning the honor to the game of golf, and the thrill back into movies.
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originally posted: 09/30/05 13:41:18