While the long-term effects in Hollywood of the unprecedented success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ remain to be seen, in the short term one thing we can look for is marketers looking for ways to capitalize on the success of The Passion by finding any possible point of contact between the film they’re advertising and Gibson’s box-office behemoth. Classical costume dramas, religiously themed films, even films with subtitles will be marketed to Passion audiences as Another Movie You Might Also Be Interested In.
Whatever future marketing tie-ins may crop up, it’s hard to imagine any being more blatant or shameless than the first, for Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, which loses no time reminding us that its star, Jim Caviezel, played Jesus in the year’s highest grossing film to date (“His Passion… Made Him… A Legend”).
Of course the film itself can’t be blamed for this shameless marketing ploy. Still, the connection seems ironic, on several levels. Caviezel’s earlier film has been called one of the most brutal films of the year; Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius may turn out to be one of gentlest. The Passion focused on a savage execution; Bobby Jones is about that least violent and confrontational of all competitive sports, tournament golf.
More pointedly, where The Passion will likely stand as the year’s most widely seen film, Bobby Jones seems destined to reach only a tiny audience of serious golf fanatics and dedicated Caviezel fans.
The star and year of release aren’t the only points of contact between Bobby Jones and The Passion. Both films are reverently respectful portraits of a real-life person who endured physical sufferings in the course of pursuing his life’s work, and achieved something unique. As Caviezel has reported one fan commenting, in a Georgia accent, during shooting of Bobby Jones, ”Y’all just got done playin’ the Messiah, now you’re playin’ the messiah of golf.” Unquestionably, it’s an infinite step down — but then, anything would be.
In purely mortal terms, Bobby Jones was a singular individual; he has been called the greatest golfer who ever lived. He’s also been called the last great amateur, and his crowning achievement, the Grand Slam of golf tournaments (the U.S. Open, the British Open, the U.S. Amateur and the British Amateur), not only has never been duplicated, but isn’t even open to professionals like Tiger Woods.
To top it off, Jones achieved this before turning thirty, while suffering from an undiagnosed neurological disorder that caused him excruciating pain. Then he retired from tournament play at 28 and went on with his life.
Even in his own day, Jones was a bit of an oddity as an amateur, and in one scene in the film he hotly defends his amateur status, pointing out that ”amateur” means one who loves, and what one does for pay one is no longer doing for love.
This is a high-minded ideal; but the film also suggests that golf is a harsh mistress whom even the most favored may pursue for years, not only without winning her, but even without taking much joy or satisfaction in the pursuit. Bobby may play for love, but he doesn’t seem to play for pleasure. In fact, he gets downright angry when he plays badly or loses — which everyone who plays golf, even Tiger Woods, even Bobby Jones, does an awful lot.
Losing is a fact of life in any sport. But golf seems uniquely unkind even to its top contenders. Last month, Tiger Woods tied for 22nd at the Master’s; last year he tied for 29th at the Deutch Bank-SOP Open. These were disappointments, certainly — but how often does a player like Serena Williams or a team like the Lakers or the Yankees finish outside the top twenty?
My companion at the movies the night I saw Bobby Jones, who has some experience with golf, described his impression of the game as a sport seemingly deliberately designed to be so hard that no one could ever play it well consistently. ”You can never be good enough for golf” was his comment. (Since the game in its present form developed in Presbyterian Scotland, I’m almost tempted to hypothesize some kind of reflection of Calvinist sensibilities regarding the impossibility of pleasing God — though I will gladly hear contrary theological interpretations from non-Calvinist golf aficionados.)
Still, compared to other games with some kind of target or goal, such as soccer, archery, basketball, or darts, golf involves a target so ridiculously small and far away, and a sheer scale of the field of play so vast and unforgiving, that there seems something almost inhuman about it, as if it were a game designed for creatures other than us.
By now, of course, it will be obvious that — in contrast to the subject of Caviezel’s last film — when it comes to golf I’m not a true believer. Those who are will perhaps want to regard my take on the film with a grain of salt, just as negative comments on The Passion from unbelieving critics needed to be taken with a grain of salt.
Having said that, I think the most successful sports movies (recent examples include Miracle, 61*, and The Rookie, starring Caviezel’s Frequency costar Dennis Quaid) reach out across the divide separating fans from non-fans, finding ways of making the drama compelling to the uninitiated as well as aficionados.
Bobby Jones, while sweetly sincere and uplifting, doesn’t fully succeed in doing this. I did appreciate some of the film’s niftiest golf stunts, including a wildly veering putt on the practice green of a rocking ship, and a rebound shot from Jones’s cheerfully decadent professional rival Walter Hagen (Jeremy Northam). Hagen, incidentally, is one of the film’s most entertaining elements, and relishes the spotlight as much as Jones shuns it. “Who’s better than us?” he gloats, standing beside Jones on the first hole.
Still, I wasn’t drawn into the game, or the story, the way I wanted to be. It doesn’t help that cowriters Rowdy Herrington (who also directed) and Bill Pryor rely too frequently on prefabricated dialogue, from clichés (“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result”) to inspiring quotations (Kipling’s “If”; Grantland Rice’s couplet about “the One Great Scorer” who “writes not that you won or lost, but how you played the game”).
One refreshing element is Jones’s relationship with his father, who is the antithesis of the stereotyped gruffly disapproving father (cf. The Rookie). Here the role of the dour patriarch goes to Jones’s grandfather, a judgmental Fundamentalist who literally won’t drink Coca-Cola because it isn’t in the Bible and regards golf as a frivolous diversion. But his son, Jones’s father, not only never pushes the youngest Jones to be anything other than what he wants to be, he also stoutly defends him to the old man.
And I like the portrayal of Jones as a player of such scrupulous honesty that he insists on taking a one-stroke penalty for accidentally tapping the ball in the U.S. Open, even though officials tell him that no one, even his competitor, will confirm seeing the blunder, and the decision is Jones’s alone. Heartbreakingly, Jones lost that tournament by that single stroke.
There’s also a cute romantic subplot involving Jones’s future wife (Claire Forlani), whose Catholic father initially objects to her romance with a non-Catholic youth — but only until he realizes that it’s the Bobby Jones.
Like Quaid in The Rookie, Caviezel at 35 is visibly too old for the role; the difference is that in The Rookie the writers carefully avoided any specific mention of how old Morris was supposed to be, while here we know that Jones starts out as a college-age youth. However, Caviezel convincingly projects the character’s sincerity, flashes of anger, and bursts of pain. Also, for what it’s worth, his swing looks solid to me.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.