The greatest game ever played? Do they mean of any kind, ever? That title's a pretty good setup for disappointment, particularly when the game in question is a game of golf, not one of our more cinematically thrilling sports. But, hey, if it's truly the greatest game ever played, surely the excitement will come naturally, right?
Not quite, although it's easy to sense that there's an interesting story at the heart of this feel-good account of the true-life showdown between Francis Ouimet and Harry Vardon at the 1913 U.S. Open. Both protagonists had to overcome the sport's inherent elitism to make their names—Vardon to become the greatest golfer of his age, Ouimet to become an amateur ambassador for the sport, having, against all expectations, played what some golf enthusiasts consider—that's right—the greatest game ever.
If only the stuff of movies didn't get in the way of a good story. As Ouimet, the always-terrific Shia LeBeouf is an oasis of depth in a film that otherwise can't pass up a sports-film cliché. True, the story lends itself to cliché: Ouimet had only to walk across the street to go to work during his 10-year stint as a caddie, and his enthusiasm for golfing met no approval from his dad, played here by Elias Koteas. But director Bill Paxton and Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost, who provides the screenplay, always seem content to settle for par. The bluebloods could be the ancestors of Ted Knight's Caddyshack character, Ouimet's 10-year-old caddie Eddie Lowery is played by Joshua Flitter as a lost member of the East End Kids, and the film grinds to a halt whenever the perfunctory romantic subplot takes center stage. But, most troublingly, the film never makes a good case for what makes Ouimet's out-of-nowhere showing at the Open the greatest game ever. The detailed social history that made Seabiscuit—the obvious model—so memorable is served up coated in gloss, and except for a few isolated moments, the action of the game has no real energy. Paxton fills the film with CGI trickery that doesn't really do the trick. Ever wondered what a drive would look like from the perspective of the ball? It's not that cool, actually. And with little else to care about, those bouncing balls should do a better job of a holding the attention.