Robert Redford's sixth directorial effort, "The Legend of Bagger Vance," which is adapted from a novel by Steven Pressfield, is not a pure sports movie. It is half about golf, half about romance, and half about God. Redford opens with Jack Lemmon as aged Hardy Greaves, an old man happily puttering around a golf course before he collapses with his fifth golf-induced heart attack. Lemmon then provides voice-over for the story of how he fell in love with golf.
As a young boy in Savannah, Georgia, the young Hardy (played by newcomer J. Michael Moncrief) idolizes Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon). Junuh is a great golfer and general golden boy. Before being called off to World War I, he romances the daughter of the richest man in town, Adele (Charlize Theron). Over in Germany, the horror of trench warfare crushes Junuh, who returns to Savannah a broken man. He gives up golf and disappears into the outskirts of town as the Great Depression settles in over the country.
Fortune calls, however, when Junuh is called to represent Savannah in an exhibition match against the legendary golfers Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill, who is as superb here as he was in his scene-stealing cameo in "The Insider"). The hitch is that Junuh is in no condition to golf, not until a man named Bagger Vance (Will Smith) emerges from the night mist and offers to caddy for him.
Bagger handles Junuh the way a veteran catcher handles a shell-shocked pitcher--with a combination of humor, serenity, and pseudo deep-think wisdom. Junuh struggles with golf and life and love, and all the while Bagger smiles knowingly, saying things like, "A man's grip on his club is like his grip on his world" and "The rhythm of the game 'jus like the rhythm of life."
Bagger, of course, is much more than caddy: He bears unsettling marks of divinity. Bagger is shown predicting a storm on a cloudless day, memorizing yard markers for an entire course without writing them down, and reappearing at the end of the movie to call the old Hardy home to God's kingdom. And he's monstrously long off the tee.
Why, then, does the cosmic aspect of "The Legend of Bagger Vance" feel most inadequate? Like most "God" movies of the last several years, Redford doesn't give his deity any more heft than Clarence the Angel Who Wants His Wings. If Bagger is supposed to be God, he's Hollywood's '90s version: a nonthreatening savior who just wants to shepherd a lost boy home. He makes the picture less interesting than it could be if He were portrayed more boldly.
Also, there is a cloying sense of orchestration in yet another depiction of God as a black man. One of the trends that has emerged as of late in Hollywood casting is that all divine characters must be minorities: Della Reese in "Touched by an Angel," Michael Clarke Duncan in "The Green Mile," Emmanuel Johnson in "Magnolia," Andre Braugher in "City of Angels," Gabriel Casseus in "Bedazzled." (The exception, "Dogma," proved the rule while indulging in particularly ludicrous casting.)
There's nothing wrong with African-Americans playing celestial types; it's just that after a while, it begins to feel like stereotyping and emotional manipulation.
What makes the character worth watching in "Bagger Vance," is Will Smith. Smith, who brings dignity to a role that isn't written with much, is the next Tom Hanks. Matt Damon turns in yet another subtly charming performance. If he isn't careful he might actually become the next Robert Redford instead of merely acting as his stand in. Theron is, again, completely devoid of any charm. She is the next Gretchen Mol.
While the problems with "Bagger Vance" are Robert Redford's doing, so are many high points. Some scenes show his winningly comic lightness of touch. The cinematography is less breathtaking than it was in either "A River Runs Through It" or "The Horse Whisperer," but it is beautiful nonetheless. In the end, "The Legend of Bagger Vance" is parts of three good movies. Part "Tin Cup," part "Gone With the Wind," and part "Magnolia." If only Redford could make the parts fit together.