By Chris Hodenfield
True golf fans will be cringing for almost every moment Jim Caviezel is on screen in the title role of “Bobby Jones, Stroke of Genius,” which opened last weekend. Portraying a man legendary for his outsized intelligence and courtly gravity, Caviezel brings a wan, hapless, moody air to the role. He radiates the intelligence of a divot.
The filmmakers suffer the fate that befalls everyone who makes a movie about an outsized historical figure. Who, for instance, could you ever cast to play John Kennedy? It’s the rare “Gandhi” where you sit bolt upright and fully believe that the guy on screen is the guy. In sports movies, maybe only Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull” carried any freight. With “Bobby Jones,” golfers will only be reminded of “Follow The Sun,” the 1951 flick wherein steely Ben Hogan was essayed by Glenn Ford with a . . . wan, hapless, moody air. Is there some law in Hollywood that golfers must be seen as dismal lunks?
Of course, in “Bobby Jones,” we do have a 6-foot-2, 34-year-old actor playing a 5-foot-7 youth. And Caviezel’s golf swing does have more moving parts than a Ferris wheel. But alas, he seems believable only when he suffers. As in his other current starring role in “The Passion of the Christ,” suffering seems to be his metier. By the way, what a hell of a coincidence that the “Bobby Jones” posters proclaim “His Passion Made Him a Legend.”
The suffering shown, though, is not overwhelming. The movie does not deal with the cruel manner in which Jones was struck down by the appalling spinal disease syringomyelia, which made his final decades, from 1948 to 1971, a wrenching burden. The way he faced up to that was truly heroic, but it is not the story of this movie.
The dramatic arc presented here is that of a golf-loving Southern boy who learns to conquer his petulant temper and become a world-champ kind of guy. This is not a fatuous plotline, but the utter absence of interesting character bits makes us all dogged victims of inexorable banality.
Several British actors give the film some needed timbre and heft, including Claire Forlani as Bobby’s wife, Mary Jones, and Malcolm McDowell as the Atlanta sports writer O.B. Keeler, with the most cartoony Southern accent this side of Orson Welles’ Big Daddy in “Long Hot Summer.”
The one bright light is another Brit, Jeremy Northam, in his oily, wisecracking portrayal of Walter Hagen, here presented as the crass, debauched, money-minded foil to the saintly Jones.
Even casual historians will leap all over this picture. The American courses, for instance, all look like smoothly barbered modern courses.
Naturally you couldn’t expect director Rowdy Herrington to locate the sort of thatchy, weedy course they had in the 1920s, but, still, the real world inhabited by Jones was far more astounding than the film could deliver. When Jones closed out Gene Homans at Merion to win the 1930 U.S. Amateur and clinch the Grand Slam, the crowd surrounding the greens more resembled a packed Yankee Stadium than the small reverent bunch that the filmmakers could assemble. The surreal hysteria that surrounded this man’s life is not really felt at all, and the gilded, high-flying, jazz-age days of the Roaring ’20s pass by like a nurse in padded slippers.
It’s kind of an awkward movie, as sincere and good-hearted as a Hallmark card, and some folks will be proud to take their kids to see it. Unlike, say, “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” it won’t shorten your life.
But the subject of the story is a man who evinced an enormously powerful personal force field. He
was not a shuffling, mumbling walk-on, and it’s sad to see him portrayed as one.
– Chris Hodenfield is a free-lance writer based in Connecticut.