For a film whose stars would make any teenage girl rush to the box office, Robert Redford's latest effort, "The Legend of Bagger Vance" pays relatively little attention to its actual human characters.
"Legend" is neither a lovable romantic comedy nor a nostalgic commentary on racial inequality, despite anything its blockbuster-generating cast may suggest. It is, first and foremost, a movie about golf.
If there is one person the film does focus on, however, it is the story's narrator, a golfer who chronicles his experiences on the golf course beginning from his childhood.
As the elderly Harvey Greaves (the unbilled Jack Lemmon) experiences another heart attack on the golf course, he begins narrating about his past and how his passion for golf began as a child in Savannah, Ga.
Harvey's story starts with the demise of Rannulf Junuh, a local hero and legendary golfer. Junuh, played by a surlier, more Southern Matt Damon, is a genuine small-town champion, complete with a Southern belle trophy love interest, Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron), the daughter of Savannah's wealthiest man.
But Junuh's picture-perfect life comes to a crashing halt when he goes to war. Returning a shell-shocked veteran, Junuh disappears from the public eye, estranging himself from both his community and Adele.
But Adele faces other problems as the Great Depression takes full force. After her father's dire financial situation drives him to suicide, Adele palns a tournament to save her family's golf course.
This is the point at which the plot degenerates into an implausible series of events. Perhaps one of "Legend'"s main problems is that it dives into conflict or melodrama before audiences have a chance to get any real sense of the characters. Jeremy Leven's script (based on the Steven Pressfield novel) gives viewers no opportunity to get to know Adele before she goes on a mad hunt for participants in the tournament.
Damon, too, has little to work with as the supposed pride and joy of Savannah - he says relatively little throughout the course of the entire movie, and his relationship with Adele remains ridiculously underdeveloped.
But despite the relative absence of dialogue and character development in "Legend," Michael Ballhaus' colorful cinematography and humorous exchanges between the title character (Will Smith) and Junuh as well as the amusing portrayal of a young Harvey (J. Michael Moncrief), provide some consolation for the characters' lack of depth.
It is when Bagger arrives on the scene that the movie morphs into an in-depth exploration of golf as an intensely competitive sport. Bagger is Junuh's mentor, but Junuh is an unbelievable protegŽ considering his inspiration is a black caddy in the Depression-era Deep South. Not only does Bagger literally appear out of nowhere, but he gains Junuh's trust and respect in the blink of an eye.
Bagger gives the film a spiritual element as a motivational golf guru, but unfortunately accounts for much of the movie's excessive cheesiness. The unnecessarily frequent coach-to-athlete pep talks detract from the film's focus on golf and Smith's phony accent only makes the speeches seem more drawn out.
But by the time "Legend" draws viewers in to the game, it is obvious Redford's aim is not to be realistic. Vivid scenery and the slow motion shots of the golf ball in mid-air give the game a surreal quality. At times these sequences contribute to the excitement of the sport, but at others they distract from the serious nature of the monumental tournament. Either way, the film has the ability to intrigue skeptics as well as fans of the sport.
"Legend" also brushes over the serious stuff. Not a word is mentioned about Bagger's subservient status as a golf caddy, despite his obvious superiority as an athlete. "Legend" also fails to portray the Depression era accurately, and it lacks authenticity, skimming over the aftereffects of war. But while the film is flawed in many respects, "Legend" is on top of its game when it gets to the heart of the game.