Golf-as-philosophy fable 'Bagger Vance' fronts a Hallmark card kind of beauty and poetry
Isn't it ironic that Robert Redford, the Sundance sugar daddy of independent film, seems to have become incapable of directing a movie that isn't utterly conventional, soft-focused Hollywood melodrama?
Granted, he's good at it. There's a certain beauty and poetry to films like "A River Runs Through It," "The Horse Whisperer" and his new golf-as-philosophy fable "The Legend of Bagger Vance," but it's a Hallmark card kind of beauty and poetry, printed on flimsy paperboard and worth $2.50 at most.
The title character of "Bagger Vance" -- a folksy, Southern, porch swing spirit guide played by Will Smith -- even speaks a lot like a Hallmark card.
"Inside each and every one of us is our one true, authentic swing," Bagger proclaims in a countrified drawl. "Something we was born with. Something that's ours and ours alone. Something that can't be learned...something that's got to be remembered."
He talks like this through the whole picture, as he caddies for a once-great golfer (Matt Damon), shell-shocked in the trenches of World War I and trying half-heartedly to drag himself out of a private abyss of drink and self-pity. His therapy is to become the hometown hero in a big exhibition tournament, playing against the two greatest golfers in the world.
Bagger appears almost magically out of the dark and fog one midnight as Ranndulph Junuh (Damon) smacks frustrated slices into the woods by lantern light outside his dilapidated Savannah manor. "You've lost your swing," quoth the metaphorical drifter. "Let's see if we can find it again."
What follows is a triumph-of-the-charming-underdog sports story (complete with a crisis of faith to bridge into the third act) that plays it safe down the center of the fairway for a prosaic but placating even par.
The story is narrated by Jack Lemmon, who makes a brief appearance in the picture's modern-day bookends. In the bulk of the story, his character is a gatsby-sporting sprout named Hardy (J. Michael Moncrief) who worships Junuh as the Tiger Woods of his day. It's the kid who first persuades the reclusive war vet to enter the tournament, which is a publicity stunt for a luxury golf course that had the bad luck to open soon after the stock market crash of 1929.
The course is owned by Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron), the beautiful, determined daughter of the recently deceased richest man in Savannah -- and Junuh's former flame, who he just couldn't face after returning home a broken man.
"Bagger Vance" gets off to a very cursory start because most of this information (the romance, the war, the broken hearts, Junuh's mental state, the onset of the Great Depression) is presented in an unwieldy voice-over that sucks up the first 10 to 15 minutes of the movie. Redford abuses the technique as a way to fast-forward to a point where he feels like letting the story take hold. As a result, the main characters' personalities go largely underdeveloped.
Matt Damon is as watchable as always, but his portrayal of Junuh's anguished soul is flavorless. The distance traveled from bottomed-out drunkard in the first reel to triumphantly recaptured self-respect in the last doesn't feel like much of a journey.
With a finger-curled bob and chiffon wardrobe, Theron makes a gorgeous flapper. She carries herself with an instinctive mix of dignity and sexuality such as a young woman might have needed when wrangling with 1930s businessmen on their turf. But there's an implied complexity to this plucky beauty that the script fails to follow through on.
As for Smith, this is his first departure from action movies since before he was a big star (he was superb in the 1993 indie drama "Six Degrees of Separation"). While he proves there's still more to him than just gunfire and glib catch phrases, Bagger doesn't come across as a Zen-mystical vagabond full of sage advice so much as a cryptic itinerant in a hobo costume who reads aloud from "Chicken Soup for the Golfer's Soul."
In the early going "The Legend of Bagger Vance" falls victim to such contrivances. Its humor is tedious. Its dialogue is over-written. It is so inordinately earnest that it never overcomes the air of cheap sentimentality that Redford polishes to a blinding shine.
But once the picture finds its game about half way through, it does manage to at least build up a somewhat absorbing head of steam. The scenes that actually take place on the links are the heart of the film. They may be predictable, but Redford executes them well, employing several stylish cinematic tricks to put the audience inside Junuh's head as he finds his zone and plays his heart out.
But everything redeemable about "Bagger Vance" gets thrown out again in the unforgivably maudlin epilogue just before the credits roll, which is a shame because it almost had me there for a while.