The Greatest Game Ever Played

on September 30, 2005 by Wade Major
In ironic contrast to the hyperbole of its title, this enjoyable but hardly remarkable Disney effort is, in fact, much like every other true-life underdog sports game played out in the movies: amiable in tone but hamstrung by the obviousness of a foregone conclusion. Fortunately, this Bill Paxton-directed effort, adapted by "Twin Peaks" co-creator Mark Frost from his own book, knows when and where to deviate from formula.

Former youth star Shia LaBoeuf ("Holes") takes a stab at more serious fare as Francis Ouimet, a legendary amateur golfer who shocked the sporting world by winning the 1913 U.S. Open, in the process defeating not only the reigning champion but his own idol, the legendary British golfer Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane). Almost more impressive than Ouimet's performance was the contribution of his scrappy little 10-year-old caddy Eddie Lowery (a scene-stealing Josh Flitter).

From the get-go, however, it's clear that there's more going on here than golf -- whatever their rivalry on the course, Vardon and Ouimet have more in common than not. Both come from working-class backgrounds and find themselves, despite their successes, opposed at every turn by the forces of hereditary privilege and class division. Ouimet gets it from both ends -- from the country club elite as well as his own immigrant father (Elias Koteas) who shares in the view that a man ought to know his place.

It's ultimately not enough to completely transcend the genre, but it does serve to color the proceedings differently enough that fans of "Cinderella Man," "Seabiscuit" and "Hoosiers" won't feel as though they're watching a complete retread. And this is, after all, a Disney-branded picture, signifying a patented family-friendliness that has rarely, if ever, been accompanied by narrative risk-taking.

Moving in an altogether different direction from his directing debut in "Frailty," Paxton -- who doesn't appear in the film -- shows a certain flair, but relies far too much on montages and an irritatingly distracting array of visual effects. And, at over two hours, it's also considerably longer than is considered prudent for a family film of this type. Starring Shia LaBoeuf, Stephen Dillane, Josh Flitter, Justin Ashforth, Elias Koteas, Marnie McPhail and Peter Firth. Directed by Bill Paxton. Written by Mark Frost. Produced by David Blocker, Larry Brezner, Mark Frost and David A. Steinberg. A Buena Vista release. Family drama. Rated PG for some brief mild language. Running time: 120 min

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