“This could be the worst idea I ever had,” young Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief), whose older self (played in his customary shambling fashion by an unbilled Jack Lemmon) narrates the story as a nostalgic memory trip, says early on in “The Legend of Bagger Vance.” He’s referring to his attempt to persuade Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), once the golden boy of golf in the south whose spirit was sapped by the horrible experience of World War I trench warfare, to return to the links and participate in a tournament aimed at saving a Savannah course threatened by foreclosure during the Great Depression. It’s a sentiment which Robert Redford might well express about his latest directorial effort, a soggy, soporific exercise in hamfisted uplift wherein Junuh is helped to find his “lost swing” (and thereby rejoin the human family) by a smiling, aw-shucks stranger named Bagger Vance (Will Smith) who carries his clubs and spouts a stream of New Agey gobbledegook about “feeling the game.” A better title for the forced, feeble fable might well be “Touched by a Caddie.”
It’s easy to understand why Redford might have been drawn to the script, fashioned by novelist Jeremy Leven (who also wrote and directed 1995’s “Don Juan DeMarco”) from Steven Pressfield’s book. It tries to bring to the golf course the same kind of magical whimsy that he helped suffuse the baseball field with in “The Natural,” in which he starred back in 1984. But Barry Levinson’s picture, despite some serious defects, managed to suggest a mythic quality that “Bagger Vance” utterly lacks. You can sense Redford straining to portray a genius for golf as an analogue to knowing how to live in harmony with things, and Junuh’s attempt to come back from adversity as a metaphor for the wider struggle of his society to come to terms with the deprivations of the depression; but the comparisons remain clumsy and obvious, and no amount of golden light drenching the countryside (courtesy of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus) or swooning music pumping from the speakers (contributed by composer Rachel Portman, who at one point goes so far as to add an angelic chorus to accentuate the drama of a hole-in-one) can persuade us that the picture is anything but high-minded hokum. It certainly doesn’t help that Redford shapes and paces the piece with a sluggish determination that shows that he believes he’s dispensing Important Life Lessons (with medicinal properties, no doubt); nor is it a benefit to have the old gasbag voiced by Lemmon (who’s supposed to be telling us the story while suffering a heart attack on a golf course!) interrupt every few minutes not only to let us know how the tournament’s going but also to explain the characters’ feelings and the human stakes of the competition. These are matters that should be dramatized, but instead they’re covered lazily by dialogue that’s simply ladled over the pretty, burnished pictures.
The cast doesn’t bring much to the party. Damon smiles cutely, as is his wont, and he models the period clothes well, but there’s no sign of the intelligence he brought to dear, degenerate Tom Ripley in Anthony Minghella’s icily brilliant 1999 thriller. Smith shuffles about amiably, but the role of Bagger, the guardian caddie, is simply hopeless: how could anyone recite inspirational dialogue that constitutes some of the most monumental drivel heard onscreen since Robert De Niro’s loony monologue about “listening to the fire talk” in Ron Howard’s 1991 “Backdraft,” or make anything of a character who apparently wears a battered old hat all the time to hide his halo? Moncrief is little more than a picture of blank and boring innocence as the young Greaves, and Lemmon merely does his patented grouchy shtick as the older version of the same fellow. Charlize Theron, who seems to be in about every second movie nowadays, is far too pushy and aggressive as the gal who’s inherited the golf course, and who was once Junuh’s squeeze (and is destined to be so again). Bruce McGill and Joel Gretsch have a few good moments as the two pros against whom Junuh competes in the tournament, but Peter Gerety (whom you might recall from the last few seasons of “Homicide”) is way over the top as Savannah’s mayor. (Incidentally, as a setting for films the Georgia city seems jinxed. Clint Eastwood’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” was set there, too, and was just as big a dud.)
In the final analysis “The Legend of Bagger Vance” is simply too silly to take seriously and too slow and overemphatic to serve as junky fun. The metaphoric message it delivers about searching for “perfect oneness with the game” isn’t much different from the meaning of the surfers’ attempt to track down “the perfect wave” in 1966’s cult documentary “The Endless Summer.” But while writer-director Bruce Brown treated those swimming dudes as cheerfully goofy obsessives, Redford insists that we think of his golfers as iconic figures engaged in what’s said to be “the greatest game in the world because you play it against yourself” (read: one’s personal struggle to come to terms with the vicissitudes of life), and the thin narrative can’t bear the weight of such a pretentious, but actually simple-minded, theme. At mid-point in this ponderous allegory, the ever-loquacious Lemmon explains to us fatuously that the 72-hole course in which the players are competing will be “grueling.” For viewers, that word will prove an apt characterization of Redford’s movie, too.