Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius (2/10)

Copyright © 2004 by Tony Medley

This film had a good story to tell. It’s about a guy who was a gentleman, who was a golf prodigy at 14, who disdained playing for money, who retired at the peak of his career, and who was afflicted with a serious nerve disease. Amazingly, Writer (with Bill Pryor)-Director Rowdy Herrington has taken what could have been a compelling story and turned it into a mundane, cliché-ridden, uninvolving biopic.

The film starts on a terrible note, lingering on young Bobby ( Devon Gearhart) for more than 15 minutes, far too long. Compounding the problem is that Gearhart is less than captivating. As a result , I was losing interest at the outset instead of being drawn in. There’s no reason to dwell so long on the prepubescent Bobby. By the time Thomas Lewis plays him at 14, it’s too late because poor Master Gearhart has been so unathletic and such a mediocre actor that we’ve pretty much lost interest and we’re waiting for James Caviezel, who plays him as a grownup. Lewis is good, but not good enough to overcome the deficiencies created by Master Gearhart.

Golf, at its best, is not much of a visual sport. I often conjure a film of golf’s highlights. It would consist either of a white ball flying against a blue sky, or a white ball rolling across a green into a cup. Not exactly Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant flying in for an amazing layup, or Willie Mays catching a ball over his head.

Even so, Herrington could have made the matches we watch a little exciting. He doesn’t even explain that golf in the ‘20s was all match play, one man against another, and not medal play, which is what we see today. Not only does he not explain that, but the matches he shows are just the final shot. We see Jones holing a putt and being declared the winner. There’s very little competition, and that’s what athletics are about.

According to this movie Jones’ wife, Mary (Claire Forlani), was a long suffering person, alienated by Jones’ constant absences playing in tournaments. That could have been played for some romantic interest, but, except for one scene where she’s a little ticked off, that’s not much of a part of this movie.

In fact, there’s nothing much in this movie that’s of any interest. Further detracting from the film is the saccharine music by James Horner that made me want to gag.

This movie shows that Jones had a terrible problem with his temper. This could have been a wonderful part of the story, but it’s treated with such lack of concern that it’s not really something we care about. The great tennis player Bjorn Borg, known for his glacial temperament, had a horrible temper when he was a young teenager coming up. His parents finally took away his tennis racket and banned him from playing until he controlled his temper. Now we remember him as the sangfroid Borg, never showing emotion. But Herrington shows Jones with a temper, throwing clubs and all, and then, after just one incident where he throws a club and hits a woman his temper leaves him as if it were something in the past, almost as if it had never happened.

In one scene sportswriter writer O.B. Keeler (Malcolm McDowell) says, “It’s hot; it’s 110 in the shade.” Jones replies, “It’s a good thing we’re not playing in the shade.” While humorous, it is such an old line it has become trite. If Jones actually created the line, well and good. But I’ve been unable to discover its derivation. If it’s not a Jones original, its use here epitomizes on the banality of the script. The screenplay is replete with quotations from other writers, like legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, “When the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name—He marks—not that you won or lost—but how you played the game”. And Rudyard Kipling’s “If you can meet Triumph with Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same…You’ll be a Man, my son.”  These are but two of many. While these are wonderful lines, it’s hard to believe that a screenwriter would include all of them in just one film. Since Herrington started it, his hackneyed script reminded me of another Kipling line, “He wrapped himself in quotations—as a beggar would enfold himself in the purple of emperors.” 

But Herrington does try to insert some original lines. Take one of the very few “romantic” scenes in the film. When Shakespeare was writing romance, he’d come up with something like, “But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun! Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, who is already sick and pale with grief,…” and “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?”  In stark contrast, Herrington gives us the following dialogue:


I love you.


I love you; I love you.

I guess it’s the same idea that Shakespeare was trying to get across. When one recognizes the depth of Mr. Herrington’s facility with words, one gets a better understanding for why he would use as many words of other writers as possible.

I liked three things about this movie. First is the faithful recreation of the era. The clothes and cars and ambience are striking. The golfers play wearing ties with their plus fours. Second is the beguiling performance of Jeremy Northam as a high-living Walter Hagen, Jones’ rival. At one point he plays a match in his tuxedo. Third is that the closing credits include vintage photographs of Jones, his wife, and some of the other people we saw in the movie. If you make it through to the end of this, be sure you don’t leave until you see the photos. At least it gets you walking out of the theater on a positive note.

Bobby Jones is recognized as one of the five American sports legends of the 1920s, known as the Golden Age of Sports, along with Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bill Tilden, and Red Grange. He deserves a celebration, not this slow, unengaging dirge.

April 30, 2004

The End