Just when I was about to concede that, okay, maybe golf IS a spectator sport, along comes Robert Redford's latest dull attempt at myth making, "The Legend of Bagger Vance."
Based on the bestselling self help/zen golf handbook/novel of the same name, by Stephen Pressfield, "Bagger Vance" is a fable about a sullen World War I veteran, Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon) who is befriended by the mysterious caddy of the title (Will Smith) and recovers not only his golf swing, but his outlook on life and the love of his life, Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron, whose character is not in the book).
If only any of them had personalities as interesting as their names.
Narrated by Jack Lemmon, the story is largely told through the eyes of young Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief) who was a boy in 1920 Savanah, Georgia. He's heard stories of the town's sports and war hero, Randolph Junuh, who is living as a shell shocked recluse.
When the Great Depression hits, Adele's father commits suicide as his dream of the world's greatest golf course threatens him with bankruptcy. The plucky Adele, decides to save the resort by staging a celebrity event with the world's two greatest golfers, Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch), and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill).
To give the tourney a local flavor, Junuh is invited to compete. But he has not golfed in 12 years. Junuh is struggling with his swing, when a proverb spouting young man in golf tweeds and a cocked hat appears, and seems to help Junuh enough that he agrees to enter.
During the next few days, of course, Junuh will conquer his demons on the field of greens, and win back the fair maiden. Caddied by an angel, the local golf "Rocky" gets his groove back. But not before being treated to endless aphorisms like, "In each one of us there is a perfect swing, we just have to find it," and "There is a perfect shot trying to find us, we gotta get out of its way and let it choose us."
Redford directs with a glow that puts "Bagger Vance" on "The Natural" turf, but if you think that movie overestimated the mystic qualities of baseball, then this is definitely not for you. Directing a fable like this is tricky business, since so much of the success of the book depends on the author's voice.
Which means the actors all need to be in the same spirit, but Damon plays this all pretty straight, Theron is just a little off kilter as a movie-type Southern Belle, Smith is somewhere between Jimminy Cricket and Nephew Remus (too young to be the uncle OR the voice of eternal wisdom, the gravitas of Morgan Freeman would have worked well here) and J. Michael Moncrief is the most wooden hero-worshipper since Brandon de Wilde in "Shane."
"The Legend of Bagger Vance" has pretty actors, pretty words, and some pretty pictures, but is a pretty dull movie. There are no real characters, just vehicles for giving and recieving aphorisms in a ham-fisted movie that screams "Feel uplifted, darn it!"
I'm not against deliberately paced films. I loved Redford's "A River Runs Through It," which used fly fishing as its metaphorical device. But in "Bagger Vance" a majority of the time is spent on the golf course, and golf accounts for a good share of the off the course conversation. It's like "A River Runs Through It" would have been if it really WAS about fishing.
And as Junuh conquers his pain by driving a ball through the trees and plays the climactic hole in the dark, I couldn't help remembering that I had seen a real golfer do both things recently, and even to this very casual fan, it was a LOT more thrilling.