Jim Caviezel segues from whips and nails to a more benign nine iron in “Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius,” a glossily packaged biopic of the golf legend who remains the only winner of all four major tournaments in a single year. Beyond the obvious audience of golf fanatics, this exceedingly long-winded but classy drama could appeal to the same strain of infrequent, regional moviegoers looking for righteous entertainment that flocked to “The Passion of the Christ.” As such, pic may serve as a litmus test to see what impact, if any, the biblical behemoth will have on its lead actor’s drawing power.
A departure for writer-director Rowdy Herrington from his usual testosterone-fueled thrillers, the reverential but somewhat stolid portrait clearly was fashioned around the inspirational model of “Chariots of Fire.”
Laborious pacing and an overload of detail in the poorly structured script cloud the film’s ability to get to the core of its subject and the key events that shaped his private and professional life. But while it’s somewhat bloated and intermittently dull at two hours-plus, the polished visual treatment and Caviezel’s sober performance lift this above the standard network movie-of-the-week level that might otherwise have been its natural domain.
Displaying a fascination for golf from a very young age, Jones (Caviezel) overcomes a hot temper that lands him in trouble with sporting associations, as well as his own rigorous moral standards and a tendency to succumb to nervous strain, depression and physical stress during tournaments to become an American sporting hero.
Before retiring to practice law and devote himself to his wife Mary (Claire Forlani) and family, Jones drives himself to win the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open, British Amateur and British Open within a four-month period, a Grand Slam record still unbroken. Only after those wins was Jones diagnosed with the spinal disorder syringomyelia.
Jones is portrayed as a selfless man of outstanding moral fiber, integrity and focus, achieving many of his goals primarily to give satisfaction to others: He earned two degrees for his mother (Connie Ray), became a lawyer for his grandfather (Dan Albright) and a champion for his father (Brett Rice) and then withdrew from golf for his wife, who was unable to endure watching him suffer. The film touches on the pollution of sport by money and sponsorship concerns, something Jones steadfastly resisted.
While the elements clearly are there in force for an uplifting story melding triumph of the human spirit with love of the game, the script by Herrington, Tony DePaul and Bill Pryor takes a frustrating approach. Too much time is spent dawdling over Bobby’s childhood and teen years, and in repetitive coverage of tournament after tournament, without really distilling the essence of the man until the closing act summation.
Providing solid support for Caviezel’s quietly intense central character, Forlani registers as a warm, sympathetic presence and Malcolm McDowell brings some spark to his role as poetry-quoting sports reporter O.B. Keeler, who discovers Bobby as a youngster and sticks with him through his career. Jeremy Northam also figures strongly as Walter Hagen, Bobby’s chief golfing rival and his polar opposite, as charismatic and self-aggrandizing as his opponent is subdued and serious. The balance of competition and mutual esteem between the two men is as central to the film as the relationship between Bobby and Mary is.
Tom Stern’s elegant widescreen lensing and crisp lighting, the attractive southern U.S. and Scottish locations, handsome period costumes and production design and James Horner’s gently stirring score all add to the film’s air of quality. For the record, Jones, Hagen and Keeler all were previously portrayed in Robert Redford’s “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” which like “Stroke of Genius,” showed that golf is by no means the most dynamic of sports for dramatic treatment.