Dig, if you will: Golf ... is a metaphor ... for life! Granted, that's a pretty radical notion, but Redford has great expectations of his audience, and once Matt Damon's emotionally wounded (and creatively spelled) Rannulph Junuh comes amblin' back onto the fairways, we spend the majority of the movie basking in lukewarm spiritual amelioration. Junuh was Savannah's Cinderella boy until he was unavoidably detained by the War to End All Wars, witnessing his whole muddy platoon being killed in slow motion amidst pretty fireworks. Innocence lost and hopes dashed, the former star of amateur-league golf returns to his hometown to cannonball a decade's worth of cigars and whiskey, until he's a tremendous slouch, a living illustration of the Great Depression that has all but destroyed Savannah's hopes for prosperity. Having lost his game, Junuh can only measure himself up to other golfers by height, and, as popular consensus has it, he "couldn't whoop a dead 'possum in a gunnysack."
In a fit of stylistic deviation, Redford forgoes the gnarled old hands preparing a fishhook that opened A River Runs Through It, focusing instead on gnarled old hands preparing a golf tee. In this case, the nostalgic mitts belong to the elder Hardy Greaves (Jack Lemmon, unbilled), who narrates both his present perceptions of mortality and the delightful adventures of his youth, as he witnessed Junuh's amazing reclaiming of his masterful stroke. Departing the present-day framing device and swimming back to the Norman Rockwell echoes Redford holds dear, we meet the young Hardy (J. Michael Moncrief, in a splendid debut), a goodhearted ragamuffin who somehow musters the courage to defend Junuh as the knight who will save the South from ruin. Once he manages to coax Junuh away from the clapboard shack where he plays mean poker with no-account scoundrels (being forced to endure, as are we, the silliness of Damon delivering a stilted soliloquy about alcohol and brain cells, with memory cells being "the toughest sons-a-bitches to kill"), the challenge begins in earnest. The world may need ditch diggers, but Junuh is destined to become a hero.
"I'm gonna have the greatest exhibition match ever held on the greatest golf course ever built!" twangs Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron) to the dubious men who have come to convince her to sell off Krewe Island, a posh resort created by her late father (paternal favorite Harve Presnell). Tired of having fun all the time and desperate to salvage the pride of her hometown, the saucy and affluent belle sets her plan in motion, inviting two of the era's finest golfers to compete. Certain to draw crowds, the flamboyant Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill, D-Day from Animal House) and the dignified Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch, greeting his first feature with great poise) will square off to raise morale and maybe even boost the economy. But there's a glitch: The town council wants local representation.
Enter Junuh, who also happens to have been Adele's true love once upon a time, before he wandered off for 10 years to become embittered without any visible signs of aging. Allowing himself to be drawn back into the Invergordons' crummy snobatorium, he's not sure about his feelings for Adele (having lost not only his swing but his schwing), yet he agrees to play the match. Of course, he slices into the rough on his first practice, which means, naturally, that he needs the help of a spirit guide. Luckily, on hand with plenty of Obi-Wan Baloney is Bagger Vance (Will Smith), who materializes in the nick of time to handle not only Junuh's salvation but also -- as the movie's sole source of wry amid copious ham -- our own. Although his metaphysical advice ("Inside every one of us is one authentic swing") inspires Junuh to battle his extremely invisible demons, he's hardly Bill Murray ("Gunga ... gunga la gunga") counseling a youth with a pitchfork at his throat. Nonetheless, the spirituality of Bagger Vance will do, especially since his name is a clever variation on Bhagavan, the Vedic term meaning "Supreme Personality of Godhead." The story never explicitly mentions Hindu mysticism, and the only Indian presence on the course is a Punjabi caddy, but the proselytizing looms large. To his credit, Smith's good-natured groove steers the movie away from feeling like a repugnant sermon, or a penance for sins we never committed.
Apart from being a horrible waste of time and a heinous manipulation of natural resources, there's really nothing wrong with golf, per se. In jovial celebration of this "greatest game on earth," The Legend of Bagger Vance is a spiritual paean to exclusive clubs and gated communities everywhere, but with one tiny incongruity: There's a black man on the course!
Smiling knowingly from beneath his shabby hat (which looks as if it has seen more than a few free bowls of soup), Smith is ideal in the well-worn role, but -- to borrow songstress Loreena McKennitt's term for her sublime backing ensemble -- he's also an idling Porsche, squelched into mannered behavior that can scarcely contain his ample reservoirs of charm and wit. (Note to producers: Let Smith direct Redford next time.) He's the best of the bunch here, but the movie's detached rosiness adds a cumbersome handicap, as with Theron -- whose every scene looks like springtime in a pantyliner commercial -- and Damon, who is simply another diluted entry in a growing line of stand-ins (Hutton, Pitt, Fiennes) for the director himself.
Like most of his films after the poignant Ordinary People and jovial Milagro Beanfield War -- especially the interminable Horse Whisperer -- Bagger Vance is a story of healing that shies away from its own soulful potential, cowering behind lush cinematography and immaculate production design. In essence, it's another pretty and polite story of a wrecked course having its divots systematically replaced.