I'd heard the negative buzz about Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, but thought that I might be able to relate to the film more than most moviegoers since I've sliced and hacked my way over a few public golf links and more recently followed Tiger Woods on two Scottsdale courses. As great as Woods is, Jones remains an unsurpassed legend of the game—a true amateur who dominated golf during Babe Ruth's heyday. Jones' greatest feat occurred in 1930 when he won all the grand slam events that year: the U.S. and British Amateur, the U.S. Open, and British Open. No one has ever duplicated this accomplishment ever—not Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, nor Jack Nicklaus. And it's not likely that Tiger Woods or any modern golfer will ever match that incredible feat since far too many excellent professional players make it impossible for any one player to dominate like Jones did 70+ years ago. Adding to Jones' legend is the fact that he played as an amateur and abruptly retired from active play at the peak of his prowess immediately after his grand slam.
A worthy story that golf fans would appreciate no matter how mundane the presentation, considering the vast number that tune in weekly to whatever tournament is broadcast on the television, all director/writer Rowdy Herrington needs to develop is a dramatic twist to construct a decent biopic. Unfortunately, he sprays whiffleballs all over the cinematic fairway to fashion formulaic chronological mush more suitable for the Biography Channel than for theatrical release.
When the film's strongest point derives from location shooting at Scotland's legendary old course at St. Andrews, it becomes obvious that the film will work for only hard core golf fans. While this has proved profitable for television network sponsors, it doesn't bode well for Hollywood where the only financially successful golf movies are comedies like Happy Gilmore and Caddyshack. Still, a serious golf film could work with the proper angle, but this is even less compelling than The Legend of Bagger Vance where Matt Damon's fictional character looks inside himself to find his "authentic swing." Further solidifying the film's "paint-by-numbers" approach, look no farther than James Horner's "original" music. No movie composer plaigerizes themes from his previous work more than Horner, and viewers find themselves mixing images of Mel Gibson's war face with idyllic golf courses when Braveheart music imposes itself continuously. Of course Celtic themes would be appropriate (given golf's origins), but this is just another example of Horner's lazy film scoring.
Herrington recreates a few authentic touches with appropriate period automobiles, dress, and Georgia family lifestyle. But he heads screenwriting committee that patches together little more than a straightforward outline of Jones' life without creating any dramatic tension. Potential stories timidly peek between the dialogue—Bobby's childhood struggles to overcome health challenges, anger management issues, a rivalry with Walter Hagen, conflicts between professional athletes and amateurs, and family issues arising from the age-old contest between fulfilling duties and expectations and following a dream. Although touched upon, none of these issues stands center stage, resulting in a hackneyed screenplay of leftover clichés. Instead of rewarding viewers with a full visual meal, Herrington serves haggis without the mashers and Scotch.
After a few childhood scenes that establish young Jones' fascination with golf, his competitive spirit, and intelligence, Jim Caviezel plays the adult Jones fresh from his heavy-duty stint in Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ. Certainly more relaxing than getting flogged, Caviezel sleepwalks through his part like he's on vacation, furrowing his brow to demonstrate intensity and tossing golf clubs to show frustration. Though later he works to show how this anger is channeled inwardly by getting an upset stomach and twitching his left hand. But much of this is due to the blandness of the writing more than Caviezel's acting. He dutifully paces through the motions, but how much drama can you expect when you know the protagonist is going to sink every forty-foot putt?
I squirmed awkwardly for Malcolm McDowell, who is saddled with playing the equally bland sidekick Atlanta journalist O.B. Keeler, who inexplicably has only one story to report to his employers, allowing him to perpetually hang around Jones to chronicle his golfing exploits. In real life Keeler did befriend Jones and published his authorized biography in the 1950's, and the film depicts him as a loyal friend and fan who provides companionship and liquor but offers little else, even when recognizing that Jones has trouble dealing with anger. He does get one of the film's most memorable lines that is certain to be quoted on ESPN: "Money will be the ruination of athletics." That's more than Caviezel gets.
Supporting character Jeremy Northam gets a juicier part as Walter Hagen, a more swashbuckling professional golfer who plays for the money and wins . . . because he has to. One of the stronger sequences demonstrates the psychological tricks that Hagen plays to defeat his smooth playing rival, and another establishes the negative attitude that golf organizations once had towards professionals when Hagen is banned from entering the locker room. Ironically, Hagen and Aidan Quinn (in a cameo role as noted golfer Harry Vardon) have the film's most memorable roles. St. Andrews old-timer Angus (Paul Freeman) gets the film's one laugh line by recounting a well-known Scottish legend about the golf's origins: "A bottle of Scotch has 18 shots, and they reckoned that when it was empty, the game was over."
Since the film is produced by the family (Bobby Jones Films), it's hardly surprising that the biography takes no risks and fails to address more controversial material about the legendary golfer, who founded Augusta National Golf Course where the Masters is played yearly. For many years blacks were banned from playing on the course, and women are still barred, but Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius makes no references to his old fashioned views on these matters. Much like the many "Jesus" movies, the film stays clear of controversy and plays it safe, making the casting of Jim Caviezel even more ironical. Word of mouth is likely to sentence this film to a very short theatrical run, but there's enough golfers out there that will enjoy seeing the film when it inevitably turns up on ESPN or the Biography Channel.