I won’t deny for a moment that the game of golf requires tremendous skill. Why, I’ve certainly had my own share of trouble through the years getting that little ball through the blades on those windmills!
What golf is not, however, is the most cinematically exciting of sports. And the few attempts at making it seem so in Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius — thanks to a handful of laughably cartoonish CGI effects — do little to disprove that. Of course, it doesn’t help that co-writer/director Rowdy Herrington and star Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ) approach the material with such reverence that I kept thinking I was watching Jesus Goes Golfing. In fact, by the film’s halfway mark, I was hoping the caddies would rebel and give Jones a 20-minute scourging with a cat o’ nine irons. That, at least, might have livened up this animatronic wax museum of a movie.
I went into Bobby Jones knowing its title character as little more than a name (and I probably wouldn’t have known that had Jones not made a series of short films in the 1930s in which he showed such movie stars as Edward G. Robinson, W.C. Fields and Warner Oland how to break 90, and to use the mashie niblick). I came out of Bobby Jones feeling like I didn’t know a whole lot more.
This “life story” is the sort of well-meaning, high-minded affair that would normally get the four-waller treatment (where the film company rents the theater for a flat rate for a week or two) and then sink into oblivion faster than a putt on the 18th hole. It’s only by virtue of The Passion of the Christ‘s freakish popularity that Bobby Jones received a wide release. (Judging by the two other people in the audience with me when I saw the golf movie — not counting the bored theater security guard who was just there killing time — a wide release doesn’t seem like it’s going to help much.)
Apart from a pointless framing story designed to clue us in to how popular Jones was, this a straightforward biopic of the old-fashioned, sanitized variety. It comes complete with a granddad (Dan Albright, Remember the Titans) who’s lovably crusty (in this case, he’s hyper-religious to the point that he won’t drink Coca-Cola, because it’s not mentioned in the Bible), who never ages, and who becomes a rabid supporter of his “wayward” grandson. Bobby Jones is awash in feel-good goo, wise pronouncements (mostly from Malcolm McDowell’s sportswriter character) that benefit from hindsight and absolutely no dramatic tension.
Back in 1946, someone remarked that the only drama in the whitewashed biopic of Cole Porter, Night and Day, concerned whether Porter would make another million. That’s about the same case here, especially since publicity for Bobby Jones does its damndest to make sure we know that our hero won the Grand Slam of Golf. Unfortunately, Herrington insists that we wade through tournament after tournament to get to this foregone conclusion.
In the midst of all this, Caviezel’s Jones suffers stoically from a bad stomach (helped, no doubt, by his taking hits from the McDowell character’s hip flask), varicose veins and jangled nerves — and it’s finally revealed that he has a neurological disease as well. I liked Caviezel in The Count of Monte Cristo, but he seems to have settled into playing characters who exist primarily to suffer (I’m starting to wonder if most of the appeal in Monte Cristo for me actually lies in Guy Pearce’s extroverted villainy).
Caviezel is certainly better at suffering, however, than he is at tackling lighter moments. Whenever he so much as smiles in Bobby Jones, he merely manages to look as if he’s about to be spectacularly unwell. Was the real Jones this bland and tormented? I doubt it. And all we really have here is Caviezel switching from being an uncharismatic Messiah to being an uncharismatic messiah of the fairways.
For a movie obviously constrained by budget (we get the same shot of the same ship twice to convey trips to Scotland), Bobby Jones is admittedly a fairly handsome production. Likewise, I’ve no doubt that its abundant sincerity is true. Unfortunately, neither attribute is enough to keep the film from being an adult-sized dose of cinematic Sominex.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke