Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Movie Review: “Golf In The Kingdom” ☺

Michael Murphy’s book Golf in the Kingdom is one of the most revered volumes in golf literature, commanding pride of place in many a golfer’s bookcase – why I’ll never know, as the book is a mish-mash of pseudo-mystical babble that has nothing of value to say about the game of golf.  Through this book, Murphy, who is one of the co-founders of the Esalen Institute, and a central figure in the Human Potential Movement, is almost single-handedly responsible for the golf-as-spiritual-journey movement (keep your crystal-gazing meditation – give me a flat left wrist, a straight left arm, and a full follow-through…).

The book is so pretentious, so obscure, so dismally bad that it is hard for me to believe that my hometown of Salinas, the small Central California farming town that gave rise to the literary genius of John Steinbeck, can also claim Murphy as a native son (I blame Stanford University – that’s where Murphy, a pre-med student, wandered into a class on comparative religion by mistake, starting him on his path to mysticism. Without that fateful wrong turn, he might have ended up as just another 8-handicap internist spending his Wednesday afternoons at the country club).

So, take a bad book, hand it over to an inexperienced filmmaker – indie director Susan Streitfeld (with one minor feminist flick to her credit) – to make a movie out of (as screenwriter and director), and the result is this terrible bit of nonsense.

The actors, an experienced cast which includes Malcom McDowell (A Clockwork Orange, Hidalgo, Bobby Jones: A Stroke of Genius – in which he portrayed Bobby Jones’ friend, and the original golf writer, O. B. Keeler), Frances Fisher (L.A. Story, Titanic), Julian Sands (A Room With A View, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and the ever-lovely Joanne Whaley (Willow, Scandal) overplay the dinner-party scenes in the manner of summer-stock novices striving to make an impression – a fault which I lay at the feet of the director, as I have seen all of these actors deliver fine, nuanced performances in other films.

Mason Gamble (Dennis the Menace, A Gentleman’s Game – a much better golf movie, based on the book by Tom Coyne), who portrays the young Michael Murphy, stopping off in Scotland for a round of golf on his way to study navel-gazing techniques in India, and David O’Hara, who is best known for his portrayal of the mad Irishman Stephen in Mel Gibson’s 1995 film Braveheart, suffer by comparison with the other cast members mostly by virtue of spending more time on screen under Ms Streitfeld’s direction. 

The film jumps from scene to scene, back and forth in the storyline (such as it is) with such reckless abandon that it must be intentionally non-linear – no one could edit a film this badly by accident and hope to ever work in the field again. The staging of the dinner party scenes is reminiscent of some low-budget local theater group’s idea of minimalism, filmed, as they were, in an Oregon barn rather than in a weather-beaten 18th-century home in a storm-battered seaside Scottish university town (or at least in a reasonable facsimile of that setting).

The exteriors were filmed at a superb golf course complex on the Oregon coast, Bandon Dunes. Unfortunately, Bandon – though comprising several linksland-style courses – looks little like the east coast of Scotland, where “The Kingdom” of the title (The Kingdom of Fife, home of St Andrews and many other iconic Scottish courses) is supposed to be found. It’s beautiful, but it’s not Scotland. Aside from the (imported) stands of gorse, the vegetation is all wrong, and then there’s the issue of the sun rising on the wrong side of the land. Nice try, on a low budget, but they’re not fooling anyone who has any experience of the Pacific coast of the United States, or the east coast of Scotland.

After premiering in Oregon, at Bandon, and screening at a few film festivals here and there, I don’t think that this film ever hit theater screens. Even here in the San Francisco Bay Area, where small indie films of all types can find audiences, this film was never screened (that I have been able to determine). If you insist on seeing this train wreck for yourself, it is available to rent from Netflix – take my advice, though, and have a copy of Caddyshack or Tin Cup on hand as an antidote, to be administered immediately after you eject this disc from the DVD player…