Par for the Course

Among a youngish generation of film buffs, Robert Redford, the director of The Legend of Bagger Vance, is perhaps as renowned today for being the founder and guru of the Sundance Film Festival as he is for his Hollywood career. The odd thing about that career is that he appears in, and directs, movies that are far glossier and more traditional than anything in the American independent-film tradition. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. In his acting prime, Redford epitomized movie-star glamour tempered by sharp intelligence, and certainly no one would wish him into most of what passes for “independent” in the cinema these days: hackneyed shoestring-budget movies serving as résumés for hackneyed big-budget work. But Redford’s directing career, at least in his pastoral-romantic mode, is glossy in the safest and sappiest of ways. Almost nothing in A River Runs Through It or The Horse Whisperer engages anything but the eye.

The Legend of Bagger Vance – which is already being sarcastically referred to as A Fairway Runs Through It, because golfing is its backdrop – is another lusciously produced, emotionally clammy Redford enterprise – forced, phony mythmaking filled with tinged sunsets and full moons. It’s adapted by screenwriter Jeremy Leven from a novel by Steven Pressfield that I have not read, largely because I fear the cranium can store only so many feathers.

The mythic belief at the heart of this movie is that “inside each and every one of us is our one true, authentic swing, something that’s ours and ours alone.” This bit of Zen wisdom, and a dozen koans like it, are delivered by Bagger Vance (Will Smith), a scruffy caddy who appears mysteriously in the star-filled night for the purpose of aiding Savannah, Georgia’s former golf whiz Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon). Bagger seems to know exactly what Junuh needs: not just his authentic swing but his very own authentic self (in the movie’s terms, they are the same thing).

Before he went off to World War I, Junuh had been paired with Adele (Charlize Theron), daughter of Savannah’s wealthiest citizen; traumatized by battle, he slinks into disreputable anonymity after the war. What brings him back onto the links is the chance to redeem himself. He accepts an offer by the city’s publicity-crazed civic boosters to take on golf’s two greatest players, Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill), at Savannah’s Krewe Island golf resort, which was built in prosperous times by Adele’s father and, in the wake of the Great Depression, became his ruination. Adele, with her eyelash-batting wiles, pushes the deal through. Like Junuh, she is looking for redemption, too. So is the young Savannah boy Hardy (J. Michael Moncrief), who functions as a kind of Jiminy Cricket alongside Bagger’s Yoda. Hardy, who as an old man (played by an uncredited Jack Lemmon) narrates the movie in flashback, is supposed to represent the wide-eyed kid in all of us: the kid we were before we bogeyed into adulthood.

Although Bagger is the film’s wise one, the massa-servant overtones in his pairing with Junuh are off-putting; parts of the film play out like Song of the South retold by Buddha. (What helps the audience over this racial discomfort is the knowledge that Tiger Woods could kick any of these golfers’ asses. Redemption indeed!) Will Smith has a trickster’s gleam in his eye that downplays the docility of his role, but he still seems like someone out of one of the more oracular Twilight Zone episodes (like the famous one, which seems similar to this film in its sticky tonal uplift, in which a very young, Pepsodent-smiley Redford played Death). Matt Damon, searching in vain for an authentic swing in his performance, seems uncomfortable being the center of all this mythic mumbo-jumbo, while Charlize Theron carries on with a flouncy giddiness that makes the belles in Dr. T & the Women seem cloistered by comparison.

The Legend of Bagger Vance wants to do for golf what Field of Dreams did for baseball: Turn our boyish nostalgia into a creed of life. We’re told that winning isn’t what living is all about; life is about having the courage to play the game. But the filmmakers have it both ways; they dismiss the crassness of victory but opt just the same for a rousing finale. And this bull about finding one’s perfect swing! As long as we’re getting philosophical here, since when does authenticity guarantee goodness? Bagger’s mantra about being true to oneself ignores the question of who that self belongs to. Surely some of the scurviest people in our midst are also entirely true to themselves. The deep-think in The Legend of Bagger Vance is a fancy way of saying nothing.

Unlike Bagger Vance, Charlie’s Angels is about as unserious as you can get. Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu play the modern-day Angels, spun off from the seventies TV series that, according to its executive producer Leonard Goldberg, “may have been the beginning of the empowerment of women within popular culture.” (Goldberg is also one of the movie’s producers.) What I remember most about the TV series is perfect teeth, big hair, and cleavage-in-motion.

What I recall most about the movie, which was directed by a music-video maven whose name, McG, sounds like a specialty burger, is the sight of three rowdy, kung fu-giddy chicks in stretch-fabric actionwear kicking butt. Their targets, a prize assortment of male crazies, include Tim Curry, whom I can never get enough of, and Crispin Glover, who is never quite all there. (He’s turned neurasthenia into an acting style.) Bill Murray plays Bosley, the Angels’ sidekick, or whatever he’s supposed to be, and he’s in prime crazy mode, too. The cast members seem to be having a high old time, and with sharper dialogue, an even higher time might have been had by all. Seventeen writers worked on the movie, only three for credit. No matter. Spandex and high spirits are a potent combo. The empowerment of women continues.

In Brief: Athol Fugard’s play Boesman & Lena has been given a respectable presentation in the late director John Berry’s adaptation, starring Danny Glover and Angela Bassett (particularly fine) as an itinerant, furiously divided mixed-race couple for whom the South African Cape Flats have become a landscape out of Beckett. Despite the staginess and stentorian line deliveries, there’s an easeful naturalism to the racial and emotional horrors on view that makes them seem even more horrible.

Par for the Course