Tuesday, May 31, 2022

The Phantom of the Open, a Different Kind of Cinderella Story

Maurice Flitcroft wanted to be the real-life version of Kevin Costner’s “Tin Cup,” but he just never played the game very well. Nevertheless, his record-setting high-score at the 1976 British Open made him something of a cult hero to frustrated duffers everywhere. After that, the British Open was very much done with Flitcroft, but Flitcroft was not done with them. His unlikely career gets the underdog movie treatment in Craig Roberts’ The Phantom of the Open, which opens this Friday in theaters.

Having always provided for his wife Jean, their twin sons Gene and James, and his older step-son Michael, Maurice is not sure what he wants to do with himself as retirement approaches for the working-class crane operator. Somehow, he gets it into his head golf will be his thing. He has the ugly clothes, but his swing is even uglier.

Naturally, he figures he will enter the British Open, because it looks like a nice tournament on the telly and because he can. That is why it is called an “Open.” It turns out there is a lot less paperwork to enter as a professional rather than an amateur, so that is what he does. Stodgy Keith Mackenzie of the R&A is scandalized by Flitcroft record high score, so he bans him from future tournaments. However, loyal Jean encourages Flitcroft to persevere, so he starts devising ways to enter subsequent Opens under assumed names.

Without question,
Phantom is most entertaining when it revels in the subversive farce of Flitcroft’s Open capers. His disguise as French golfer “Gerald Hoppy” is a sequence worthy of Peter Sellars. (It even comes with a Clouseau moustache.) However, Roberts somewhat loses his way, indulging in some painfully maudlin family melodrama during the third act. Flitcroft was born to burst pretensions, rather than be elevated to some kind of tragic hero.

Regardless, Mark Rylance perfectly personifies Flitcroft’s oblivious innocence, his whimsy, and his later sadness. It is another very good performance, from one of the best in the business. He also shares some sweet and lovely moments with Sally Hawkins, who is achingly earnest (and little else) as Jean. Christian and Jonah Lees also get some genial laughs as Flitcroft’s disco-dancing twins, but Rhys Ifans’ Mackenzie is not pompous enough to be a worthy foil for Flitcroft.

Frustratingly, Roberts just mishandles the later tone of
Phantom, in a weird attempt to turn it into a Mike Leigh film. It is too bad, because Flitcroft’s story is a winner. (The film is also likely to generate a whole bunch of new membership applications for the Grand Rapids Country Club that appreciated Flitcroft, so good luck to their board.) It is all very nice, but it needed a little more edge. Recommended for golfers and fans of sports films, The Phantom of the Open opens this Friday (6/3) in New York, at the AMC Lincoln Square.