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Originally published Friday, September 30, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

The greatest game? How about a darned good one

You've got to admire the audacity of a movie (and the Mark Frost book it's based on) that calls itself, with cool authority, "The Greatest...

Seattle Times movie critic

You've got to admire the audacity of a movie (and the Mark Frost book it's based on) that calls itself, with cool authority, "The Greatest Game Ever Played." And the game in question is, indeed, an historic moment in golf: the 1913 standoff at the U.S. Open, in which a skinny 20-year-old American kid took on a legendary British champion.

But, really, the greatest game ever played? Then again, "A Pretty Darned Good Game, Especially If You Like Golf" wouldn't look like much on a marquee.

I mention this because the title is a real problem here: It sets up expectations that this movie — or, really any movie — can't possibly deliver.

What director Bill Paxton and screenwriter Frost give us is a sweet-natured, prettily photographed and at times genuinely exciting drama, bogged down by some thinly written characters and syrupy music.

Movie review 2.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"The Greatest Game Ever Played," with Shia LaBeouf, Stephen Dillane, Elias Koteas, Josh Flitter, Peyton List, Marnie McPhail, Peter Firth. Directed by Bill Paxton, from a screenplay by Mark Frost, based on his book. 120 minutes. Rated PG for some brief mild language. Several theaters.

Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf) is the young underdog, a former caddie who's quit the game at the urging of his working-class father but is drawn back for one last match. Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane) is the Brit who's dominated the game, but who has demons of his own: Also born working-class, he's struggled with the elitism of his beloved sport.

Early on in the film, we see him summoned to the elegantly burnished drawing room of a British country club, thinking he's finally being asked to become a member, after winning numerous championships. No — the curled-lip snobs who run the place want him to work there.

Perhaps because these characters have similar backgrounds, or because LaBeouf and Dillane both give likable but not especially detailed performances, it's not always easy to know who to root for in "The Greatest Game Ever Played" — both seem like good fellows who deserve to win. (And, unless you're a golf expert, nor is it always easy to follow exactly what's going on during the match.)

Paxton seems to sense a lack of dramatic tension, and so tosses in distractions like a pointless love interest for Francis, and a wide variety of ball's-eye-view camera effects (not to mention a very elegant smoke ring, settling around a billiard ball like a snugly fitting belt). The result is a film that feels overlong and overembellished.

But when he lets the game speak for itself — when the world seems to hang on whether a ball will drop into a cup — the film finds some quietly thrilling moments. This is, at its heart, a good game — and a good story.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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