Atlanta lawyer 'Big Bob' Jones (Brett Rice, "Monster") imports Scottish golf pro Stewart Maiden (Alistair Begg) to witness the pitiful putts he and his colleagues practice at their beautiful new course. Stewart, spying Jones's six-year-old (Devon Gearhart), asks his brother 'Is that wee boy touched in the head?' but the sickly kid is just fascinated by the game. Stewart makes young Bobby his first set of clubs never dreaming that he would go on to become the only man ever to win golf's Grand Slam in "Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius."
James Caviezel ("The Passion of the Christ") suffers for a sport in this period turn, but he is too remote and it's his supporting stars who shine. Director Rowdy Herrington ("Striking Distance," who also cowrote with Bill Pryor) achieves a nice look for his film (cinematography by Tom Stern, "Mystic River") but his unbalanced structure is too front-loaded making the film a long, if fitfully engaging, sit.
The world of 1920s golf pits Great Britain's long history, particularly Scotland's St. Andrews, against the upstart American South. As Bobby grows, his 'special swing' is duly noted, especially by fawning sports reporter O.B. Keeler (Malcolm McDowell, "The Company") when the fourteen year old enters the Georgia Amateur Championship, but the lad can never quite seem to win anything. (Gearhart, believable casting as a young Caviezel, is inexplicably replaced by the stocky, squinty-eyed Thomas Lewis for the fourteen year old rendition.) Bobby is a source of contention between his proud dad, and his grandfather (Dan Albright, "Remember the Titans"), a puritan businessman, so the lad enters law school and maintains his amateur status throughout his career. This frustrates his frequent rival, the flamboyant and hedonistic pro Walter Hagen (Jeremy Northam, "The Statement"), whose conviction that he will always win because he has to is proven wrong by Jones's sheer love of the game.
Caviezel gives a dour performance as Jones, brightening only when pitted against players he admires or when wooing Mary (Claire Forlani, "The Medallion"), the woman who will become his long-suffering wife. Although Jones was a man of temper (possibly provoked by his physical obstacles), he was a moral compass, losing the U.S. Open by one stroke, for which he penalized himself. Caviezel continues picking roles with saintly qualifications. It is much to Forlani's credit that she remains a beacon from her introduction, a sweet and concerned partner who never succumbs to the 'little woman' stereotype of sports hero films. Northam has a field day as the colorful Hagen (as did the physically different Bruce McGill as the same character in "The Legend of Bagger Vance"). His entry into the film is one of its most colorful scenes, with Hagen arriving at a charity event sleeping off a drunken binge in the back of his chauffeur driven car. Also excellent is Rice as the boisterous senior Jones, as hale as his son is unhealthy yet nonetheless living vicariously through his progeny. The usually reliable McDowell turns in a cutesy caricature (he does get to deliver one very prophetic line about the future of sports). He's offset by Begg and Paul Freedman, as Angus, Bobby's St. Andrews' caddy, who portray the Scots with more down to earth humor.
Besides his uneven pacing, Herrington has a problem establishing some characters, who disappear before we're quite aware of their importance. Harry Vardon is evidently a golfer Jones revered, but Aidan Quinn plays the man in little more than a mysterious cameo. Bobby's friendship with U.S. Women's Amateur champion Alexa Stirling is also sketchily handled given the director's focus on Jones's early years. Frequently, the tournaments are edited as a wildly veering series of horrible mistakes followed by brilliant swings. Given the Atlanta setting, Coca Cola product placement in a 1920's period piece is more amusing than annoying. James Horner ("House of Sand and Fog") nicely incorporates golf's Scottish beginnings into a pleasing score.
In the modern history of the game of golf there are four tournaments that define the sport – the British Open, British Amateur, US Open and US Amateur championships. In 1930, Robert Tyre Jones, Jr. stunned the golf world when he set his cap to win the Grand Slam of golf – and did it! His story is told by director Rowdy Herrington with Jim Caviezal in the role of “Bobby Jones, Stroke of Genius.”
Herrington, working the script that he, Bill Pryor and Tony De Paul scribed, tells a straightforward, historically accurate account about the man who performed a Herculean feat that has not been repeated in over 60 years. “Bobby Jones,” though, is a niche film that may have problems attracting a non-golfing crowd that has little or no awareness of the man and his many accomplishments. Duffers, those who like “Tin Cup” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” will likely be pleased with the telling of the story of the golf legend.
Jones’s story begins with 6-year old Bobby (Devon Gearhart) batting golf balls with his cut-down 1-iron. His daddy, Big Bob (Brett Rice), encourages his sickly son to play, hoping to give the boy better health and exercise. Soon, young Bobby is trailing behind on the course, mimicking Scottish pro Stewart Maiden (Alistair Begg), and begins to play in earnest. A few years later, at age 14, Bobby (Thomas Lewis) won the Georgia Amateur and became the youngest player to qualify and compete in the 1916 U.S. Amateur Championship, almost winning the event and earning the title, “Dixie Whiz Kid.”
Although Big Bob encouraged his son to play the game and hone his natural golf skills, his mother pushed the teenaged Bobby to get an education. He graduated from Georgia Tech at the tender age of 18, later earned an English degree from Harvard in three semesters and went on to Emory University Law school for just a year before taking and passing the Georgia Bar exam. During these years of procuring a higher education, he continued to play the game and made a solid amateur career. But, beginning in 1923, Bob Jones began to become a legend. In 1926 he became the first player to win “The Double” – the U.S. and British Opens, - both in the same year. His status as the greatest golfer, ever, came with his winning the Grand Slam in 1930, a feat never repeated.
Herrington does a solid job in telling Jones’s story and bases much of it on the facts of the golf master’s illustrious life. It is a by-the-numbers document that chronicles Bobby’s truly remarkable life and his truly remarkable achievements. Jim Caviezal gives a sober performance as a perfectionist who wants to be true to those closest to him – his father (Rice), mother (Connie Ray), grandfather (Dan Albright) and wife, Mary (Claire Forlani) – much to the detriment of his own mental and physical well-being. Caviezal’s performance, unfortunately, lacks dimension and keeps the viewer at arm’s length, never allow us to see what made the man tick.
Supporting performances are good and varied with Jeremy Northam putting a credible spin on his Walter Hagen golf pro character. Hagen was a flamboyant player who pioneered making a professional career out of the sport and captures the man’s insouciant, bon vivant attitude perfectly. Brett Rice is also fine as Bobby’s dad and fervent supporter throughout his meteoric career. Malcolm McDowell, as Atlanta sports journalist and Bobby’s confidant, O.B. Wheeler, shows his usual versatility and ability to put on a believable southern drawl. Claire Forlani has the usually tough role as the loving, supportive wife but the actress gives her character, Mary Malone Jones, dimension. Background characters are fully realized, such as Paul Freedman as aging caddy Angus who maintains a loyalty to Jones whenever the man returned to the famous St. Andrews golf course. Other supporting cast members also help flesh out the background.
The script is hit or miss at times, in one case introducing a character quirk with 14-year old Bobby ritually rubbing his lucky charm before tee off. This behavior is dropped through the rest of the film until the climax when the adult Bobby suddenly reverts to the habit once again. There are other elements that are there to introduce conflict and resolution that seem tacked on to give the film verisimilitude. There is a rushed feel to the production that makes “Bobby Jones” appear like it was put out to capitalize on Caviezal’s starring turn in “The Passion of the Christ.” The rough edges should have been smoothed out before sending it to the big screen.
Techs are fine with cinematographer Tom Stern doing yeoman’s work behind the camera to capture the golf “action” (not a word I would normally attach to the sport). Costume, by Beverly Safier, does an exemplary job of creating the period look and feel for the film. The varied golf course locations, especially the St. Andrews links in Scotland, are given their due.
“Bobby Jones, Stroke of Genius,” like last year’s sports drama, “Seabiscuit,” is an earnest attempt to portray the life of a sport legend. It does the job but it is definitely targeted for a specific niche audience – you duffers out there know who I’m talking about – that may garner fair attendance. I give it a B-.
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