Humor is in the eye of the beholder

Audiences go to a horror movie to be scared, to a thriller to be thrilled; to a romance to be entranced; and to a comedy to laugh. Enter The Phantom of the Open ready to be amused or you will not have a good time. It is not, from all points of view, a funny story. Its protagonist is a foolish fellow who from a certain angle is too pitiable for laughter. As portrayed by the inestimable Mark Rylance, Maurice Flitcroft is also opaque. Somewhat mysterious also is up and coming young director Craig Roberts' decision to make a simple, undemanding crowdpleaser like this about yet another British sports underdog.

This is a surprising true story. Unlike the usual underdogs, Flitcroft doesn't come behind to win in his late-chosen sport of golfing: he comes behind to gain notoriety by flopping miserably. Flitcroft's experience reminds me of a moment of mine back in the days when I progressed from jogging to modest distance running. When I first entered a race, I briefly harbored a fantasy that I might do well. Flitcroft never gets over this fantasy. Threatened in Margaret Thatcher's late Seventies failing British economy, Flitcroft, a crane operator at a shipyard, sees redundancy in the offing. He looks around, and on a new TV glimpses and falls in love with golf. On his own, he starts practicing. He's having so much fun, he thinks he's getting good. He's not.

Phantom of the Open presents a different situation from road races that are open to all like the one I entered back in the day. The British Open was never meant to be open to any level of golfer, let alone a rank beginner like Flitcroft, and he has to lie and fill in "professional" on his entry form to get by the requirement to provide an acceptable handicap. Pro's don't have to list handicaps. Their accepting his claim without proof shows the British Open's system was faulty.

As is British tradition, the actors in Phantom of the Open are selfless and much better than they need to be. That Rylance's performance is opaque doesn't mean it isn't subtle; that's why in a film meant as a comedy it's opaque. Sally Hawkins, as Flitcroft's patient, encouraging wife Jean is likewise complex, if you look closely. Is she patient and encouraging, of is she dense and blind? Hawkiins always has a secondary layer of pathos. But there's no pathos in Rylance's Flitcfoft. His layers are of inexplicable cheer. In the Mail the critic, Matthew Bond, says Rylance comes "dangerously close to depicting Flitcroft as some sort of Cumbrian Forrest Gump," and provides "a tick-and-teeth-driven performance" that appears "assembled from bits left over from performances he's given before" - and Bond lists them, convincingly. There is a mystery about Rylance. Why does an actor of such astonishing craft take such a goofy, comic role? Is this a triumph or a misstep?

This film's pleasures are not always that. It can be more painful than hilarious to see a man in the highest level of golf competition forced to make one miserable shot after another. But humor is in the eye of the beholder. If you enter the theater to laugh, you will probably laugh. Flitcroft's young twins (Christian and Jonah Lees), who in life actually did win an international dance competition, provide light entertainment by flitting in and out alternating between caddies and disco dancers.

You're not expected to laugh at everything. The fallout of Flitcoft's "exploits' is reflected in his older son by another marriage, Michael (Jake Davies), who works for the shipyard, and is browbeaten by his boss for the embarrassment brought them by his dad. In the soppy sweet latter scenes of the film, you're expected to sob in sympathy. Be ready. Or you might be repelled.

The Phantom of the Open, 90 mins., debuted at BFI London in Oct. 2021, and showed in half a dozen other festivals. It opened in UK cinemas Mar. 18, 2022. It opens on the internet in the US Jun. 3, and June 10, 17, and 24 in various California cinemas. Metacritic rating: 65%.