2 stars (out of four)
Let's face it: Golf ranks just above NASCAR as the most boring televised sport.
The filmmakers behind "The Greatest Game Ever Played" instinctually know this, and so have jazzed up this turn-of-the-century golf movie with computer graphics.
Viewers are swept along in the wake of a high-velocity golf ball hit by underdog amateur Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf) in the 1913 U.S. Open. We also see the course as fabled golf pro Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane) does: Fans and obstacles fade away, revealing only his goal.
It's overkill, of coursea bit like keeping a hockey stick next to your putter.
Even so, actor Bill Paxton, directing his first feature since 2001's underrated "Frailty," evokes 1913 with confidence and depth with the help of production designer Francois Seguin. It's a world you can walk around in, hail a buggy taxi while snapping your vintage suspenders.
Author Mark Frost's script, however, which documents Ouimet's rise from poverty, handicaps the movie considerably. Frost wrote the book and receives a producer credit, so it's fair to lay the script's contrivances at his feet. Ouimet overcame class prejudice and the odds to compete against the era's greatest golfers. And we're beat over the head repeatedly (as if with that hockey stick) with reminders that he's poor, he's working class and snobby golf society keeps him down.
With this mantra, "Greatest Game" weighs in as the weakling of a quartet of recent period sports movies: "Seabiscuit," "Miracle" and "Cinderella Man." Each tells an underdog story that aims to illuminate an era as well as a sport.
Paxton does penetrate the insular, upper-class workings of golf in the 1910s, and finds a treasure in actor LaBeouf (Holes), who carries the film, cliches and all, effortlessly. Even small parts are well-cast, especially Luke Askew as Alec Campbell, Ouimet's golfing guru.
As in most sports tales, "Greatest Game" isn't about the game, or even the other players, but about overcoming adversity and one's innermost fears. On this count, Paxton hits the ball squarely in capturing the psychology of his characters, but hooks it into the sand trap of effects and thematic overselling.
But all sports stories, especially underdog yarns, are contrivancesseparated only by the nuance of their telling. Neither has much room in Paxton's cinematic golf bag. The hockey stick takes up too much space.
'The Greatest Game Ever Played'
Directed by Bill Paxton; screenplay by Mark Frost, based on his book; cinematography by Shane Hurlbut; production design by Francois Seguin; music by Brian Tyler; edited by Elliot Graham; produced by David Blocker, Larry Brezner and Mark Frost. A Walt Disney Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:55. MPAA rating: PG (for some brief mild language).
Francis Ouimet - Shia LaBeouf
Harry Vardon - Stephen Dillane
Ted Ray - Stephen Marcus
Lord Northcliffe - Peter Firth
Arthur Ouimet - Elias Koteas
Eddie Lowery - Josh Flitter
Mary Ouimet - Marnie McPhailCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times