The Barenaked Archives – The Greatest Game Ever Played

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

The Barenaked Archives are reviews that I did for two previous websites. Sadly, they are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

The Greatest Game Ever Played posterPar for the Course

Lately it seems Disney has been hunting down as many true sports stories involving victorious underdogs as is humanly possible so they can make them into “inspiring” movies. They handled football with Remember the Titans, baseball with The Rookie, and hockey with Miracle. Somehow, it seems only fitting that they’ve turned to golf with their latest movie, The Greatest Game Ever Played.

Despite a bit of a rocky start, The Greatest Game Ever Played turns out to be a solid drama that, for the runtime at least, makes you care very much about getting a little white ball into a gopher hole.

In the early 1900s, golf was still very much a gentleman’s sport, with “gentleman” being read as “rich white guy.” Twenty-year-old Francis Ouimet (Shia LeBeouf) is not a rich white guy. He’s a caddy at a country club and an amateur golfer. Thanks to a wealthy member of the club and some luck, Francis gets an amazing chance to play in the 1913 U.S. Open against his idol, British champion Henry Vardon (Stephen Dillane), who is still considered the best British golfer ever.

If you judged this movie solely on the trailer, it would seem to be in exactly the same vein as Disney’s other sports movies (whose names Disney features quite prominently in their promotion for this one). For one, you would assume that Francis Ouimet is completely the main character. For two, you would assume that Henry Vardon was an arrogant prick. For three, you’d expect a training montage. Basically, you’d be expecting a more realistic version of Happy Gilmore.

Of the above, all you get is the training montage. Is this a bad thing?

Surprisingly, no. It’s a change of pace to have a movie that bucks those clichés. Here they seem more interested in emphasizing the similarities between Ouimet and Vardon: both grew up poor, both were told they could never play golf, and both rebelled against the system and overcame it, to an extent. They go out of their way to make Vardon almost as sympathetic as Ouimet, which works for most of the movie.

However, once you get to the end and the inevitable showdown between Vardon and Ouimet on the golf course, the question of who the audience wants to win comes into play. Ouimet is the underdog, yes, and the trailers have convinced us that he’s the one we’re rooting for, but you can’t help but feel for Vardon as well. He’s been through just as much in life, maybe more by now.

The point is you don’t care who wins. They both deserve it. That may be the way it is in real life, but this is a movie. We’ve got to be rooting hard for one or the other, or the climax is going to lose a lot of its drama.

Fortunately, the rest of the movie is pretty solid. Shia LeBeouf is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors: he was excellent in Holes (if you haven’t seen it, do so immediately) and one of the better parts of Constantine. Here, he’s wonderful as Francis Ouimet, especially in the scenes with his father, who thinks Francis ought to be working instead of playing golf. LeBeouf is charming and really does some exceptional work here.

However, most of the laughs in this movie belong to Josh Flitter as Eddie Lowery, the little kid who becomes Francis’s caddy. He tells it like it is, knows the course backwards and forwards, and his blunt observations are about the only thing that can calm Francis down when he gets too nervous in the game. The kid is hilarious.

While The Greatest Game Ever Played isn’t the best sports movie ever made, it’s still a great little drama with enough going for it that the more minor problems don’t matter.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to fend off the people coming after me with tar and feather for succumbing to the use of the most obvious pun.

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