Despite the popularity of golf – estimates of the number of people in the Unites States who play hover north of 20 million – it is a niche activity when it comes to bringing viewers to theaters to see movies about the game. You can count on your fingers the number of notable feature films that have centered on the game of golf, and on the fingers of one hand the number of those that enjoyed any measure of success at the box office – Caddyshack, Happy Gilmore, The Greatest Game Ever Played, The Legend of Bagger Vance and Tin Cup come to mind – with few of those having enjoyed critical success.
With the foregoing facts in mind, it’s easy to see why the pending release of a golf-based feature film is something of a sensation in the golf community – an event that is viewed with great anticipation – and also why bringing a film on this subject to the screen is a risky financial proposition. The producers of a new golf-based movie The Squeeze – set for release on April 17, 2015 – are pursuing some innovative methods to get the film out to the viewing public, including premium video on demand, theatrical release to selected screens around the country and a first for a feature film release – video download via the Groupon discount website.
The Squeeze centers on a golf prodigy named Augie Baccus, a 20-year-old local boy from a small southern town (filming for the home-town portions of the movie was done in Wilmington, North Carolina) who dreams of making it on the PGA Tour. Augie, played by Jeremy Sumpter (of the TV series Friday Night Lights) comes to the attention of a rascally pair of traveling gamblers/con artists: Reeves “Riverboat” Boatwright, portrayed by Christopher McDonald (who played PGA Tour pro “Shooter” McGavin in the movie Happy Gilmore) and his comely blonde companion Jessie, played by Katherine LaNasa. Money is tight at home for Augie, a situation that leads him to fall in with the duo in their scheme to fleece unsuspecting local golf hotshots and small-time gamblers for some quick cash.
Problems arise when, having depleted the pickings in the local area, Riverboat and Jessie head off to the greener pastures of Las Vegas, where they pull Augie into a big-money golf match set up by Riverboat and a local big-time gambler called Jimmy Diamonds. Matched up, implausibly, against the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, and with a cool $1 million on the line, Augie is pressured by the Vegas mobster to throw the match, and when he tries to skip town, is threatened with death by Riverboat if he doesn’t win (hence the “squeeze”.)
Reaction to preview screenings of the film from such notable figures in the world of golf as Phil Mickelson, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus have been favorable (though a quick check into the names of the enthusiastic “reviewers” reveals a history of friendship or past business relations with Jastrow, or a monetary stake in the movie.) Much is made of the fact that every effort was made to ensure that the actors who portray the golfers in the film could actually play the game at a level which would render their performances believable to golf-savvy audiences, and much early praise has been heaped on the movie for the supposed accuracy of its golf sequences.
Writer/director Terry Jastrow brings impressive credentials to this project: 24 years as a producer/director for ABC Sports, 12 years as president of Jack Nicklaus Productions, and a long history of producing golf instructional programs for some of the biggest names in the game. Unfortunately, what Jastrow doesn’t bring to the table is the ability to write or direct a coherent, believable story.
The movie opens with a foreshadowing sequence, as Augie is being roughed-up by Jimmy Diamonds and one of his goons in a Las Vegas hotel room, before circling back to a sequence featuring Augie, his girlfriend, and a buddy playing a $10-a-head game of cross-country golf through their small town. Afterwards Augie tears up the local muni and wins the 36-hole city championship golf tournament by an impressive 15 strokes, tying and then breaking the course record in the process. Riverboat and Jessie, who just happen to be cruising through the local area (in a gorgeous sky-blue 1961 Thunderbird…) hear Augie’s post-round interview on a local news radio station. Smelling money like sharks smell blood in the water, the duo track Augie down at the golf course and try to talk him into being their ringer for a string of gambling matches.
The opening “cross-country” golf sequence is fun. The trio take wide-ranging paths across town, hitting shots under bridges, down railroad tracks and back alleys on their way to the practice green at the local municipal golf course. The high point of this bit is a scene in which Natalie, Augie’s girlfriend, makes the dreams of a couple of teenaged boys come true. When her ball lands in a backyard swimming pool the two boys watch in goggle-eyed amazement as she peels down to her sports bra and Daisy-Duke-style jean shorts, dives into the pool to recover the ball, then climbs out, soaking wet, drops the ball on the deck and plays through. (Natalie is played by B-movie actress Jillian Murray, who bears more than a passing resemblance to a younger version of Jastrow’s actress-wife Anne Archer.)
Another scene in the middle of the cross-country match, though clearly designed to establish some character reference for Natalie, stalls the flow of the sequence, and falls miserably flat. Playing down an alley between industrial buildings, Natalie stops to give the $30 pot to a drunk sleeping in the doorway of an abandoned building (“Hey Lionel – I’m gonna leave you some money, OK? This is for food, not for drinks. God loves you baby.”)
After the cross-country golf match, the film’s narrative and performances break down. . In his eagerness to cast actors who could play golf – and young Sumpter is reported to carry a handicap of +1.1 at his home course, Moorpark Country Club, in the Los Angeles area – writer/director Jastrow forgot to cast golfers who could act. Actually, it’s not so much the actors who are the problem, it’s the material they are given to work with.
Weak dialogue, paper-cutout characters and a plot that is barely a concept, let alone a fully-realized story, are the downfall of The Squeeze. Christopher McDonald’s “Riverboat” dresses and talks like he just walked down the gangplank of a Mississippi River gambling boat circa 1875. Michael Nouri’s Jimmy Diamonds character mouths clichés one after another, and spends most of the final match either leering knowingly over his dark glasses as the match goes badly for young Augie, or murmuring menacingly to the naïve young hero when he threatens to pull ahead. The Jessie character is an odd mix of wise-cracking lady grifter and fading Southern belle, but Katherine LaNasa plays her with a go-for-broke enthusiasm that only just falls short of overcoming the weak material she has to work with.
The storyline of The Squeeze is reputedly based upon the real-life (mis)-adventures of Keith Flatt, a golf course owner and entrepreneur in the Las Vegas area whose wife, Chris, is the executive V.P. of sales and marketing for Wynn Las Vegas (the big-money final match in the movie was filmed on the Wynn Las Vegas Golf Course.) Flatt related his story to Jastrow and Anne Archer over dinner one evening a couple of years ago, and the long-time live-sports producer thought that it would make a great movie. It might have, in more capable hands, but Jastrow’s screenplay fails to flesh out the characters in the tale and, among other shortcomings, falls woefully short of constructing a believable back story to explain Augie’s dismal home life.
The implausible caper-flick ending comes together seemingly out of the clear blue Las Vegas sky, leading off with Natalie – who had tried to talk Augie out of going to Vegas in the first place – showing up at the golf course out of the blue in fetching pink golf togs, mid-match, to caddie for Augie and throw a girlie-charm monkey wrench into the works against his opponent. What happens next couldn’t have been pulled together more neatly by Danny Ocean and his crew, but they would have done it more plausibly.
The early buzz on The Squeeze billed it as “the next great golf movie”, making much of the “authenticity” of the golf action in the film, but a collective few minutes of golf shots played by actors who are honest-to-god decent golfers with believable golf swings is not nearly enough to offset the film’s more fundamental flaws. Golfers who care more about a decent golf swing than plot, dialogue, and character development will probably like this movie just fine, but I’m afraid that its eventual place in the golf movie spectrum will, in the long run, find it occupying a spot closer to The Foursome than to Caddyshack or Tin Cup.