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Good acting drives the story in cliched yet appealing 'Game'

Talk about setting the bar high: The new golf movie about Francis Ouimet's upset at the 1913 US Open at The Country Club in Brookline is called ''The Greatest Game Ever Played." Really? Ever? Greater than the US hockey team's ''miracle" win at the 1980 Olympics? Greater than Johnny Unitas leading the Baltimore Colts past the New York Giants in 1958? Even on a local level: Greater than Games 4 through 7 (take your pick) of last year's Red Sox-Yankees playoffs?

This takes nerve, which the movie has in both spades and clubs. Based on screenwriter-producer Mark Frost's 2002 book and built on the sturdy bones of underdog classics from ''Rocky" to ''Seabiscuit," ''Greatest Game" begins in climactic mode and gears up from there. It's a True Story crowd-pleaser that embraces every sports cliche known to man, and it's easily the most hyperactive golf movie to date. I've felt less battered coming out of a boxing film.

You still may cry uncle quite happily, even if you're not one of the many people who find peculiar solace in hitting a small white ball with a stick. For one thing, the story's hard to resist. A former caddie who grew up literally across the street from The Country Club (at 246 Clyde St.; the house still stands), the 20-year-old Ouimet was a stringy blue-collar intruder on a gentleman's pastime: an unknown amateur who entered the 1913 Open against a field of giants.

His 36-foot putt on a soggy 17th hole during the second day of play is enshrined on any list of Top 10 Golf Moments; the following day's playoff between Ouimet and two Brits, Ted Ray and the legendary Harry Vardon, is hailed as the American democratization of the sport. President Taft attended the tournament, and so did about 15,000 Bostonians. The Bostonians came to see Ouimet.

He's played by Shia LeBeouf (''Holes") as a thoughtful, canny young man with a natural talent and the work ethic to take it somewhere. LeBeouf usually gives his roles a snarky edge, but he dispenses with that here; he knows Ouimet's game is his edge. Arrayed against this gifted prole are the moneyed snobs of Boston and The Country Club, and actor-turned-director Bill Paxton lets no opportunity slip to remind us that the toffs look on Ouimet with undisguised horror. ''This isn't the sort of thing caddies do," says one TCC member, as if the kid had streaked the fifth green. Current members may rest assured the Club doesn't come in for serious smacking around; in any case, tournament sequences were shot at Montreal's Kanawaki Golf Club.

The most original touch in ''Greatest Game" is its insistence that Vardon (a smooth Stephen Dillane) and the massive powerhouse Ray (Stephen Marcus) were outsiders, too -- both raised in poverty on the Isle of Jersey and barred from the inner sanctums of Britain's gentleman's clubs. This denies the movie a convenient on-course villain, but it nicely strengthens the sense of solidarity among the leads. All three understand that they're here for love of the game and nothing more.

Elsewhere, no lily goes ungilded, from the training montage with the grizzled vet (Luke Askew) to the hero's disapproving immigrant father (Elias Koteas) to the dewy Chestnut Hill beauty (Peyton List) who captures Ouimet's heart -- her part's an invention, and an unnecessary one. The role of Eddie Lowery (Josh Flitter), on the other hand, is right out of the history books. Ouimet's levelheaded 10-year-old caddie was nearly as celebrated as the golfer, and the bond between the two probably contributed to the outcome. You can't improve on that, but Paxton tries anyway, turning the character into an adorable links-side Yoda, and while Flitter gets his laughs, someone should probably have taken a mulligan here.

The director seems more intent on fashioning a PGA Tilt-A-Whirl ride: He pumps the music up, fiddles with the photography so the frames look lovingly hand-tinted, fiddles some more with the facts (that final playoff score wasn't as close as the movie says), and sends the camera soaring with the ball, above the ball, sometimes through the ball. We fly through the trees, we look up through the green, we careen into the scoreboard, and at one point, Ted Ray tees up and the camera settles on a CGI ladybug landing delicately on the ball. Why? Because the technology's there to do it.

What's missing here is the one thing any duffer knows you need: Focus. ''The Greatest Game Ever Played" works so hard to convince you of the truth of its title that it never settles down to address the ball.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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