If you find your Authentic Swing, the rest will come. That's the advice the mysterious, out-of-nowhere titular character (Will Smith) of "The Legend of Bagger Vance" gives to Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), a former amateur golfing champ now devoting his life to liquor, card playing and little else of anything except generally going to seed.
Junuh, of course, learns to appreciate the wisdom of his mystical caddie and taps into a transforming healing of his game, and of his spirit, the latter deeply wounded by the carnage he witnessed as a soldier in World War I. He regains his self-confidence, reconnects with the world and finds a little romance along the way.
Robert Redford, referencing his own "The Natural," "The Horse Whisperer" and "A River Runs Through It" as well as "Field of Dreams," takes great advantage of all these elements, turning in a beautifully lit fairy tale of a sports story that only occasionally turns soggy.
The appealing performances, particularly by Damon, J. Michael Moncrief as Junuh's young mentor, Hardy Greaves, and the actors doing pitch-perfect work as real-life figures Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill) may be enough to compensate for rigors related to the rather lethargic pacing of a movie that spends its final 40 minutes on the golf course, for a final 36 holes.
Redford, choosing an actor that bears a notable resemblance to the director's younger self, tells the tale as a sort of memory piece, framed with book-ending bits featuring a typically crusty Jack Lemmon as Greaves, all grown up (a la the framing device of "The Green Mile" and "Saving Private Ryan").
In a flash, we're back in Savannah, circa the pre-Depression years, a place where graceful living is practiced by genteel folks, the luckiest of whom are garbed in crisp white outfits and hobnobbing at society parties. This is the South of the imagination, where blacks and whites pal around without creating controversy, and the lilacs are always in bloom.
There are nods to the coming economic storm, though (if not to the racial and class strife of the era). Hardy's father loses his store, and Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron), the sweet, manipulative belle of the ball and Junuh's deserted girlfriend, is suddenly forced to take over her late father's pride and joy, the Krewe Island golf resort.
Adele, by hook and by crook, convinces Jones, Hagen and finally Junuh to play for the $10,000 prize, and "Bagger Vance" subsequently focuses on the differing strategies taken by the three players, along with the vaguely Eastern philosophical bits dispensed by Smith's magic man.
"There's only one shot that's in perfect harmony with the field," Vance whispers into Junuh's ear. "One authentic shot. Let it choose us. Don't think about it. Feel It." And so on and so on. It's the kind of dialogue that doesn't really work on paper. Miraculously enough, it makes perfect sense on the big screen. Even if you DON'T buy it.