Leave it to the Brits to give us the second movie in seven years about a hapless sports figure who was quite terrible and never really got any better and yet somehow became a beloved figure because of his dogged determination and permanent underdog status. In 2015, we had Taron Egerton as “Eddie the Eagle,” who finished last in two Olympic ski jumping events at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, and now comes “The Phantom of the Open,” with Mark Rylance as one Maurice Flitcroft, a laid-off crane worker in the port town of Barrow-in-Furness (such a British name!) who wrangled his way into the 1976 Open Championship and shot a 121 – by far the worst score in the tournament’s history.
What next, a TV series about a fictional mid-level American football coach who is hired by a British soccer club even though he doesn’t even know the rules of the game, hates tea and tells his players, “Be a goldfish”?
Directed with period-piece style and some nice creative flourishes by Craig Roberts, with a warm and witty screenplay by Simon Farnaby, “The Phantom of the Open” has a lovely opening segment detailing the courtship of Maurice and single mother Jean (Sally Hawkins) shortly after World War II, and then we flash forward to the mid-1970s, with Maurice’s now-grown stepson Michael (Jake Davies) working as his boss at the shipyards and telling Maurice he’s about to be let go, while the couple’s teenage twin sons, Gene and James (a hilarious Christian and Jonah Lees), are pursuing their dual dream of becoming professional disco dancers.
Yet that’s only the second-most ridiculous fantasy in the household, as the 46-year-old Maurice has decided he’s going to become a professional golfer, even though he’s never played a round in his life. (When Maurice fills out the paperwork to enter the Open, under “handicap” he mentions his false teeth and “a touch of arthritis.”) Against all odds and logic, Maurice actually makes it on to the course and proceeds to hack his way to a score of 121, drawing the ire of the stuffy fussbudget official Keith Mackenzie (Rhys Ifans) but becoming a fan favorite after the TV announcers focus on Maurice as a feel-good novelty story.
When Maurice is banned from playing, that’s no problem: He dons an insanely bad disguise and masquerades as a mustachioed Frenchman named Gerard Hoppy, and he’s on the course again. Time and again, Maurice figures out a way to crash tournaments, in the process becoming a laughingstock in some quarters and a lovable antihero in others.
The golf sequences are played for farcical laughs – after all, Maurice never gets any better – but the domestic scenes lend the story its heart. Rylance and Hawkins are magnificent together in portraying a lifelong love affair, and there are some touching moments between Maurice and his stepson. With pop hits such as “Ride Like the Wind,” “Money Money Money” and “Build Me Up Buttercup” on the soundtrack, and production values that plunk us smack-dab in the middle of the 1970s, “The Phantom of the Open” is about as deep and complex as a round of miniature golf, but it’s just as much fun as well.
Although I have a feeling Maurice would have been about 20 over par even at miniature golf.