BOBBY JONES, STROKE OF GENIUS is not so much a film as a sermon conceived as a series of lessons designed for moral improvement and delivered by rote by a preacher who long ago exchanged enthusiasm for boredom with the subject matter. It is, I suppose, good for you on some level, in much the same way that overstewed prunes are good for you, or bracingly cold showers, but as an entertainment, well, thats another story altogether.
The story is of, arguably, the best golfer who ever lived. Im no expert, but the people who are behind this film think Tiger Woods is an also-ran. He was a perfect paragon of virtue, a man who called a foul on himself during a tournament when no one else had seen him move the ball after it landed. The problem is that paragons have a tendency to be bland and Jones, as portrayed here was only slightly less dull than bubbling tar on one of the hot Georgia roads that he called home. And so it is with Jones. The tale is a montage of scenes demonstrating him to be brave, selfless, and noble over and over again. You expect a halo to appear over his head at any moment, but perhaps Im projecting from Mr. Caviezels other current theatrical release.
Exactly twice does the screenwriter allow Jones to deliver a tidy riposte. It leaves one wondering if there were more, either in the script or in the actual life of Mr. Jones, but that they were removed so as not to detract from the hagiographic essence of the story. Though told with the idiom of the epic, all golden haze and swelling orchestral score, this is the sort of biopic that was popular in the 40s and 50s, the ones that Botoxed all the annoying wrinkles of ambiguity out of their subjects and rendered them too noble, stalwart, and goodie two-shoes to be true. Obsessed with golf from a tender age, Jones adored the game so much that he never turned pro, capturing the worlds heart with his boyish charm and a killer swing. In an attempt to add a safe complexity to this golden boy, Jones complains at one point about being trapped by fame, and yet yearns to continue tournament play.
Instead of running with that inner conflict, the subject is dropped as abruptly as it is raised. Instead we are throttled with by-the-numbers scenes of Bobby being told by everyone, including his opponents, that he is the best golfer in the world. Hints and more than hints are dropped by everyone on screen that this talent is the stuff of an unshakable destiny to become a legend that he must fulfill. In fact, a fun way to spend the tedious two hours plus running time is to time how long it takes before a new character gives that speech to Bobby. The script is a potpourri of cliché and melodrama. There are the health crises. Theres the disapproving grandfather who thinks even soft drinks are the devils work, much less golf. Theres the ham-handed romance that starts with Bobby spotting his true love and crashing into a vegetable cart while chasing her on a bicycle. It has nowhere to go from there, what with the object of his affection (Claire Forlani) reduced to little more than a big smile and an adoring gaze until she suddenly turns shrewish when her man wants one more crack at the tournament circuit before collecting herself and returning to the Stepford wife big-smiled adoring gaze.
Then theres Caviezel, an actor who has turned in a good performance or two and I refer you to THE THIN RED LINE. Here he is hampered by a very bad wig, and artistic choices that have rendered him dull-eyed and stolid, with a relentlessly earnest woodenness. Even when flinging golf clubs at the unsuspecting gallery after a bad shot, there is no fire, no passion. The great romantic scene with his wife that calls for him to declare that his love for her is greater even than his passion for golf is delivered with the intensity of a man trying to decide between the gray or the grayer fabric for a new suit. That he is a man in his thirties, and a craggy one at that, essaying the role of a man in his late teens and early twenties is something that not even the most flattering of lighting can ameliorate.
The only bright spot is a sly and raffish Jeremy Northam as Jones friendly rival, a dissolute but charming pro who plays strictly for the money and the occasional debauchery it can bring. It makes one wonder why the film wasnt made about him. Even Malcolm McDowell, an actor of towering charisma, cant bring much energy to his role as a reporter who discovers Jones as a kid and then sticks to him like white on rice for the rest of the film. And why should he? That character as written is strictly an expository device there to tell us what we should be feeling at any given moment and to deliver the youre the greatest pep talks that are sandwiched in between all the others.
Perhaps there is a great story in the tale of Bobby Jones. Perhaps there is a thrilling way to film golf for the big screen. But BOBBY JONES, STROKE OF GENIUS doesnt even come close.