Bill Paxton showed surprising skill as a purveyor of the scary, creepy, and weird in directing the critically acclaimed, 2001 horror-thriller Frailty. For a follow-up, he’s taken a dramatic left turn and made a Disneyfied golfing movie called The Greatest Game Ever Played. He should have stuck with devil-children.
Based on the true story of the 1913 US Open, where 20-year-old American Francis Ouimet defeated veteran British golfer Harry Vardon (the man still regarded as the greatest Brit ever to hit a tiny white ball), the film flails desperately around the stories of multiple characters in an impotent attempt to show the game from multiple points of view. It’s kind of like watching a chicken try to fly. There are a lot of feathers going everywhere, but it doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere.
The Greatest Game Ever Played opens outside a stone hovel where a little boy walks out his front door to discover that his family’s shack is about to be bulldozed to make way for a golf course. This is Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillan), though Paxton never bothers to make that clear. Instead, the movie flashes forward from there to recklessly jump around between timelines and different characters. We meet another little boy hanging around on a golf course. This is Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf). His family is also poor, and he lives in America. He practices putting daily on his bedroom floor, and grows up into a young caddy with a fantastic golf swing. Where he learned the sport is unclear, since we’re told caddies are not allowed to play on the course. There’s only so much you can accomplish playing golf two feet from your brother’s bunk bed.
Then we’re back watching someone else, who after a great deal of divining the audience will determine to be Harry Vardon as he struts around England trying to prove he’s a gentleman, though his father is a pauper. The Brits it seems have a different view of golf. Harry came from nothing, yet no one seems to have a problem with him using their courses, as long as he stays out of their gentleman’s clubs.
Paxton’s film lumbers on like that for at least an hour, leaping between Harry and Francis with a complete lack of structure or reason. None of these pieces really fit together and the film frequently loses itself in utterly random side trips. Finally the time for the great game rolls around, and Francis finds backers to get him in the US Open against the wishes of snooty, cliché club owners. It’s also against the wishes of his bitter, practical father who looks like he’s been working in a coal mine even though he lives in a major city across the street from a rather nice golf course.
Once the game starts, things get little better. Francis randomly receives a cute, wisecracking kid for a caddy (he appears out of nowhere) and they start playing golf. Side trips for bad, useless, and again random, CGI are taken, more characters wander in and out of the film without so much as an introduction. Golf is already a fairly boring game to watch, Paxton and his stack of hacked up montages make it nearly unbearable.
Simply put this is a movie utterly lost. Mark Frost’s script drifts all over the map as it struggles to cover a single event (the US Open) from every conceivable angle, when the story probably would have been better served by focusing in on a single aspect. Shia LaBeouf is clearly meant to be the star of the movie as Francis Ouimet, but the kid never gets his proper due. Instead the story meanders almost equally between he and Vardon, with no real connection. Things happen without motivation or reason, and it’s absolutely maddening. Why is Harry Vardon followed around by four ghostly looking undertakers? Perhaps more importantly why are we wasting so much time looking at them? Francis promises to stop playing golf… why does he suddenly change his mind? There’s no hint of what’s going on inside these characters’ heads, instead we’re left with vague guesses. Where is the story? Is it a love story perhaps? Francis does have a love interest, but like everyone else in the film she wanders randomly into the picture and back out again, completely forgotten by the movie’s end.
The problem with The Greatest Game Ever Played is evident right from the film’s beginning credits sequence. Paxton opens the movie with old drawings and cartoons from the early 1900’s era in which the film is set. But almost none of them have anything to do with golf. Instead we see pictures of people selling fish, or riding in old cars. Isn’t this a golf movie? Why not use more pictures of caddies, or turn of the century advertisements for golf clubs? Paxton has no idea what he wants his film to be and as a result never finds what little story there is in Frost’s ridiculously scattered script. The movie is a mess, and though Shia LaBeouf and Stephen Dillan really give wonderful performances, it’s wasted in this confusing, disjointed, and unintentionally laughable film.