In the short history of golf movies, "Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius" falls somewhere between the nostalgic hogwash of "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and the raffishness of "Tin Cup." (It doesn't pretend to scale the Olympian heights of "Caddyshack.") This is an old-fashioned sports hagiography of the sort that Gary Cooper used to star in while Teresa Wright sat smiling and worried on the sidelines, and, amazingly, it engages your attention and even respect while trotting out every clubhouse cliche in the book. Weekend golfers and older audiences will find it a refreshing dip in a bygone past; anyone who considers the game a tedious hobby for grown men to mythologize will be asleep by the second scene.
Fair warning: "Bobby Jones" is over two hours long, and its subject, like most sports gods, isn't all that interesting when he's not doing that thing he do. The filmmakers strain to come up with dramatic conflict -- one onlooker actually sighs and says, "Varicose veins, at his age," during a hospital scene -- but aside from a bit of a temper, trouble with stress management, and the occasional sand trap, Robert Tyre Jones Jr. (Jim Caviezel) seems to have kept out of the rough most of his life.
He was the Tiger Woods of his day, children -- a teen golf prodigy who came out of nowhere, Georgia, in the years leading up to World War I and who achieved the golden indomitability of a legend during the Roaring '20s. He stood for fair play, losing a tournament by one stroke after he penalized himself for moving the ball. And he did what no player had done before or has done since: won golf's Grand Slam by taking the four major tournaments in the same year. Then, at 28, he retired.
"Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius" tells his life story one patient scene at a time, from sickly childhood to adolescent fame and into the pantheon, and it's at its modest best when conveying the look and feel of its period: the clothes, the concerns, the unhurried pace. It surrounds Bobby with a gallery of types, some of whom play this sort of thing well. Claire Forlani gives weight to the thanklessly drab role of Jones's wife, Mary, and Jeremy Northam motors off with the film as pro golfer Walter Hagen, a genial rake whose handicap is "drink and debauchery."
On the other side of the green are Malcolm McDowell, clanging away at a tin-eared AmAHrican accent as sportswriter O.B. Keeler, Aidan Quinn sounding like he's from some odd Eastern European country club as rival Harry Vardon, and Brett Rice and Dan Albright as Jones's estranged father and grandfather, who eventually share a healing intergenerational hug that would have gotten them run out of 1930 Georgia on a rail.
And then there's Caviezel, last seen suffering for the sins of others in "The Passion of the Christ" and here serving a similar function for the Saturday-duffer crowd. The most interesting notion offered in "Bobby Jones" is that the legend won tournaments to please his father, went to college for his mother, became a lawyer for his grandfather, and quit golf to make his wife happy. In other words, he did nothing for himself besides swing the club and hit the ball. Gorgeously.
But passive-aggressiveness doesn't make for an interesting hero, and beyond a little hand trembling and one full-on nervous breakdown from which the movie turns its head in embarrassment, Caviezel does nothing to draw us into the man. His Bobby is as opaque as his Jesus; an icon to be worshipped but never approached. I have yet to be convinced that this is technique rather than bad acting. In Caviezel's favor, a blond dye job this shoddy might slow down Daniel Day-Lewis himself.
"Bobby Jones" was directed by Rowdy Herrington, who made a few energetic knucklehead classics in the late '80s -- "Road House," with Patrick Swayze as a bouncer with a Rhodes Scholarship, and "Jack's Back," with James Spader as twin-brother serial killers. The new film suggests that A) Herrington has picked up a serious golf habit and B) his filmmaking batteries have not run completely dry. This critic has manfully resisted the game as his friends have picked it up over the years, and yet I still was enraptured by the arc of a 12-foot putt in this film, or the way a man could loft a ball into a cup that wasn't even in his line of sight. Herrington gets the harmony of the moment; he knows all the rest is noise.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius