As a tale of an inspirational and supremely talented athlete, Bobby Jones, Stroke of Genius is clearly modeled after a much better film, 1981's Chariots of Fire. But while this story of golfing great Bobby Jones, the only golfer to win all four major tournaments in a single year, isn't on the same level as Chariots of Fire, it is still a respectful, respectable effort. The film doesn't offer much in the way of insight into the complicated Jones, but it does very competently and sometimes movingly chart his rise to the status of a legend in the game.
What Bobby Jones (rated PG for golf-course profanity) has going for it, aside from great source material in the life of the title character, is restraint. Admiring biopics often don't trust their audience enough to consider subtlety a useful tool. But Bobby Jones, while not free of clichés, avoids many such sand traps. The film is technically impressive as well, featuring fine cinematography by Tom Stern and a stirring score by James Horner.
The film begins with the young, sickly Bobby tentatively watching his father's friends play golf in their native Georgia. He's introduced to the links himself by crusty Scot Stewart Maiden (played, interestingly, by real-life Scot and pastor Alistair Begg). Not long after, he's gaining notoriety by competing in amateur competitions at about half the age of other golfers.
As an adult, Bobby is played by The Passion's Jim Caviezel, who brings a somberness to the role that sometimes disguises the weightlessness of the story. He's surrounded by intriguing (but mostly underdeveloped) characters, brought to life by a talented cast, including Malcolm McDowell as journalist O.B. Keeler, who chronicles Jones's rise to fame; Claire Forlani as Jones's longsuffering wife; and Jeremy Northam, the top golf pro (Jones competed as an amateur) of the day, a man whose dissolute life serves as a stark contrast to Jones.
Bobby Jones features some very effectively dramatized golf scenes, but the most remarkable aspects of Jones's life (his commitment to amateur sports, his pursuit of multiple postgraduate degrees, the contrast between his fiery temper and rigorous ethical standards) are glossed over. Despite its lofty aspirations, the film never really digs into Jones's character in a way that helps us understand what motivated him, in the same way we can understand the fierce pride of a man like Harold Abrahams or the godly devotion of a man like Eric Liddell.