Handsome, square-jawed blond guys in elegant golf togs, pursuing the game’s own grail down the misty fairways of memory–if that adds up to a movie, it’s one Robert Redford could direct in his sleep, right? Apparently. Redford’s The Legend of Bagger Vance, which attempts to do for golf what Hallmark did for Christmas, feels less like an artistic vision than a communicable catnap. Whether or not the dream strikes you as pleasant, you wake up with the odd sense that you’ve missed the movie.
I haven’t read the Steven Pressfield bestseller that was the source of Redford’s film, and at this point you’d have to pay me a fair amount of money to do so. One assumes the movie is far less grating than the book for the simple reason that it is a movie: We get to look at stars, ogle beautiful clothes and landscapes, and return visually to a less hectic time. With a book, it would be a lot harder to allow the mind to drift away from the, um, story.
I use the term loosely. Story, or the lack of it, is the thing that separates Bagger Vance from Hollywood’s last attempt to extract holiday-season millions from a gauzy tale of mystical redemption set in the Depression-era South. Based on the writings of Stephen King, who is to the narrative fiction trade what geysers are to the oil industry, The Green Mile was wall-to-wall story, three-plus hours of plot packed tight enough to give Tolstoy constipation. In fact, that was what I liked about Frank Darabont’s otherwise rather sappy movie: It seemed to share King’s gleeful delight in his storytelling fecundity, a prolixity that makes Bagger Vance–and most current Hollywood movies–seem drip-fed by comparison.
Of course, Redford and company think they have a story, because Pressfield’s book gives them a premise that looks like the launching pad to something big. After the opening flourish of a Pvt. Ryan-like framing device (another old white guy falling to his knees, but this time it’s a duffer’s fifth heart attack, not James-Jones-does-Proust), the movie rockets back to the 1920s and Savannah, Ga., where the obligatory boy narrator, Hardy (J. Michael Moncrief), recalls the troubled career arc of his great golf hero, Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon).
Forget that his name suggests an author who thinks Southerners have an inborn difficulty with hard consonants–Junuh has his own woes. Circa 1916, he’s the golden-boy champeen of the links, with a lusty attachment to the fair Adele (Charlize Theron), whose daddy owns half of creation. But then comes World War I. Junuh ships off to the European trenches, sees his entire company get turned into vulture niblets, and comes back one of Hemingway’s damaged men. Here the film makes a huge and momentarily baffling jump, from circa 1918 to 1930: The Roaring ’20s have roared by without blowing a kiss. Savannah, by all appearances, never got to Charleston.
The reason for the leap: Depression-era hardship is a plot point. Adele’s daddy has blown his disappointed brains out after opening the world’s greatest golf resort at just the wrong historic moment. She wants to save the place with a splashy exhibition match that pits greats Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen against a long-unseen local hero. But can Junuh be rescued from drinking and playing cards with the field hands, as Those Who Can’t Forget are wont to do?
Actually, he emerges from his despondency as if he’s ready. The big problem is internal, a form of damage that manifests as the wrong kind of golf handicap: He’s lost his swing. Just can’t find the grip, the stance, the winning arc. Which of course can only mean one thing: He needs to get in touch with his inner Negro.
That would be Will Smith, wouldn’t it? America’s least threatening brother strolls in from the low-country mist grinning and nodding his broad-brimmed hat, oblivious to the fact that in any less clueless movie he would be playing Tiger Woods and Matt Damon would be his caddy. Smith’s Bagger Vance is an all-purpose mystical guide from the great beyond, devoid of anything as specific as an accent or a past. Reports have it that the movie excised overt supernatural powers that the book allowed him, but that only leaves him all the more vaporous; neutered in every way beyond the vaguely therapeutic. Yet his value to massa is undeniable: In recovering his swing, Junuh obviously hopes to get his schwing back, too. Adele indeed has a lot riding on her big exhibition match.
As I say, it’s a premise. It takes too long to set up, and after that … don’t forget to set the snooze alarm. As a spectator sport, golf may be notoriously boring to nonenthusiasts, but the makers of Bagger Vance act like that’s its biggest advantage. Rather than segmenting the competition into several briskly dramatized matches, they stretch one game to well over an hour, which in screen time feels well-nigh interminable. And to make sure things don’t get too interesting, they deprive the competition of any gut-level personal rivalry. Junuh, Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Hagen (Bruce McGill) are gentlemanly coequals; none would spoil the collegial mood by actually disliking one of his Gatsbyesque fellows.
Bagger Vance is set in the South, but its sensibility screams California–and argues that Hollywood filmmakers should stow their Joseph Campbell for a while. Even by the standards of misty-eyed sports fables, Redford’s film lacks the kind of human and social traction that mystical yarns, especially, need for lift-off. It’s a gesture toward a story rather than a story, a tribute to blond-guy soulfulness that can’t help but feel a little self-regarding.
I can’t imagine it’ll be much of a career assist to its stars, either. For Smith, the film at least marks a retreat from the high-concept vacancy of crap like Men In Black and Wild Wild West. But you couldn’t exactly describe the Yoda-of-the-links he plays here as a return to dramatic reality. It’s too bad, because Smith is more than an agreeable screen presence; he’s a gifted actor who could use the challenge of a real part for a change. As for Damon, perhaps the best way to compliment him is to say that his Junuh really does give the impression that World War I left him shell-shocked; for most of the movie Damon seems like he’s in a daze. This isn’t good. If Damon doesn’t watch out, he’s going to end up a male Sandra Dee, with only pretty-boy parts and toothpaste commercials available to him.
And Charlize Theron–why is every actress suddenly Charlize Theron? Really, I’ve seen three movies in the past week and she was the chief babe in every one (The Yards and Men of Honor as well as Bagger Vance). Where are all the other aspiring babes? Theron’s in fact very good in Bagger Vance, but this ubiquity gives the creepy impression that Hollywood is cloning little Charlizes from a secret droid factory somewhere in deepest Burbank. It’s not exactly a comforting thought.
Still, the movie left me thinking about other aspects of its iconography, and wondering if they aren’t its real drawing card. Sure, its way of making Depression-era poverty seem clean and wholesome, and of ridding the South of any hint of racial friction, makes Norman Rockwell look like a hard-hitting social realist by comparison. Yet once we reach the big game, this headlong retreat from the present evinces a more specific and positive goal than mere escapism. Here, Gatsby opens his shirt to reveal the heart of Alfred Lord Tennyson. The players become chevaliers jousting with lances of hickory, the lilt of ancestral Scottish voices is heard on the breeze, and the emerald fairway seems to stretch straight down to Avalon.
No, I’m not saying that the movie has now left planet Earth behind. I’m saying it has gained a foothold in a very real cultural myth that is perhaps strongest of all in the South, and that becomes more anomalous and more subliminally appealing as our culture watches the belief structures of amour courtois fall before the corrosive imperatives of technological materialism.
“Ritual and romance” I think the phrase is, and in giving us a fleeting glimpse of its meaning, Bagger Vance makes the point that movies, here in the moment before digital projection wreaks a crucial change on the medium, are more than ever serving as an oasis from the overwash of trivializing toxicity that most pop culture has become. The story Redford’s film tells thus may not be more than a weak combination of New Agey wishfulness and locker-room sentimentality, but the world it glancingly evokes–a world of belief and tradition, beyond place and ideology–still connects to powerful, immaterial realities that bear thoughtful reflection.