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Review: The Greatest Game Ever Played

From down-home Christian horror to Disney?

The Greatest Game Ever Played
Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

From down-home Christian horror to Disney? In The Greatest Game Ever Played, Bill Paxton’s directorial follow-up to Frailty, his unexpectedly solid 2002 debut, the studio’s wholesome-reactionary colors may be in full bloom, but there’s no denying Paxton’s knack for punchy visuals. In the opener, a quartet of top-hatted, black-caped figures materialize outside the childhood cabin of Harry Vardon, who is destined to become the all-time British golf champion but is glimpsed first as a twee lad watching his family’s home dismantled to make room for a golf course. “A game played by gentlemen,” one of the Snidely Whiplashes tells the boy, then adds, “Not for the likes of you.” The line carries the class barriers that will link the grown Vardon (Stephen Dillane) to Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf), his young American opponent at the 1913 U.S. Open Championship. The caddy-cum-amateur Ouimet is meant as Vardon’s U.S. counterpart, whose dreams of entering the rarified greens of the course reflect similar proletarian struggles, “peasants” under the skin, yet Mark Frost’s screenplay (adapted from his own book) is molded in the typical against-all-odds pattern, milked for both paternal approval (Elias Koteas, as Francis’s dour, mine-toiling father, keeps shaking his head at his boy’s determination) and knee-jerk rah-rahs (Francis is hailed as “America’s last hope” against the British Empire’s apparent expansion into sports trophy-snatching). Realizing that golf may not be the most exciting sport to watch, Paxton pumps up his tasteful period reconstructions with eye-catching effects, and no reason is too insignificant to mount the camera atop a zipping CGI-ball. (Vertigo’s forward-tracking-zoom-out comes in for particular abuse.) The promiscuous razzle-dazzle brings to mind Peter Berg’s empty flash in Friday Night Lights, but the actor-turned-director whose presence is felt the strongest in the production is Ron Howard; indeed, the main template may have been Cinderella Man, another movie that uses class politics for crowd-pleasing, pacifying underdog mechanics. Simply put, The Greatest Game Ever Played has no balls—it scrambles for feel-good gentility when it might have benefited from a tougher, deeper examination of the rules of the game. Either that, or Adam Sandler knuckling it out with Bob Barker.

Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Stephen Dillane, Elias Koteas, Peter Firth, Stephen Marcus, Peyton List, Justin Ashforth, Josh Flitter, Marnie McPhail, Max Kasch, Len Cariou, Luke Askew, George Asprey, Marc James Beauchamp, George Terlecki Director: Bill Paxton Screenwriter: Mark Frost Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures Running Time: 120 min Rating: PG Year: 2005 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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