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[whitespace] In the Rough

Matt Damon's club gets touched by an angel in 'The Legend of Bagger Vance'

By Richard von Busack

DAN (EIGHTBALL) CLOWES once did a cartoon about discovering his grandmother watching golf on TV with the sound turned down. "What are you doing, Grandma? How can you tell who's playing?" he asks. She murmurs, "The lawns are so beautiful ..." If you can space out like that, you might derive some lawn-viewing pleasure from The Legend of Bagger Vance, as insufferable a load of angel-kitsch as the movies have ever presented.

In Savannah in the 1930s, there's a soused ex-golf champ, played by Matt Damon and named Rannulph Junuh (maybe the person filling out the birth certificate was slurring drunk, too). Rannulph is redeemed from a life of whisky and cards by a little boy (J. Michael Moncrief) and an angel in human form: Bagger Vance (Will Smith). Together, the pair help Rannulph "find his swing," sprucing him up for a match with real-life golf greats Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill). Meanwhile, Rannulph's estranged wife, Adele (Charlize Theron), tries to patch up the marriage her man almost destroyed by his prolonged absence. (It was WWI, you know--Flanders flashbacks.)

At first, Theron comes across as a tough Southern belle, but then becomes a sniffling piece of arm-candy. Theron looks her best in movies set before the 1960s. She has the blank, thoughtless sexiness of the girls the illustrator Petty drew for Esquire. But she's a wretched actress, even in old-fashioned parts. She's soulless and anachronistic; it's as if she never considered how people of the past were different from us.

Screenwriter Jeremy Leven previously cooked up the made-in-Santa-Cruz stinker Creator. His cute, canned writing is worsened by heavy overrnarration. Jack Lemmon (as the adult version of our little boy hero) tells us everything we're seeing (When Rannulph heads off to fight the Kaiser, Lemmon says, "It was a patriotic call to the war to end all wars.") Most of the film is a long golf match, with Bagger filling Rannulf's head with angelic homilies of the level of "Trust in the Force," advising him to empty his head and fill his heart. It's as if Smith's trying to hypnotize the audience into a state where it'll accept this New Age gunk unquestioningly. If director Robert Redford sincerely followed his own advice, he would have been devoured by rival businessmen decades ago.

Oddly, the cynical Hagen is the most interesting character, because he's a man of the world. Redford burdens Hagen, the only homely person in the movie, with unsavory characteristics: a pinky ring, an appetite for liquor, even cigarettes! He may be a smoker, but Hagen looks like he'd know how to make a good movie, anyway. It's impossible to imagine how one's wits could be so softened by success that this overproduced Touched by an Angel episode could look like a winning idea.

The Legend of Bagger Vance (PG-13; 127 min.), directed by Robert Redford, written by Jeremy Leven, based on the novel by Steven Pressfield, photographed by Michael Ballhaus and starring Will Smith, Matt Damon and Charlize Theron, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the November 2-8, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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