The Legend of Bagger Vance is set on the Sundance Ranch of Robert Redford's imagination, a quasi-mythical patch of Americana where seldom is heard a discouraging word. Norman Rockwell would feel right at home here. Will Rogers too. Maybe even Mark Twain. Maybe. The thing is, once you accept the movie's terms--its gentle whitewashing of America's racial past--you'll feel right at home here and never want to leave. Slow as molasses and twice as sweet, The Legend of Bagger Vance combines The Natural and Field of Dreams with golf; call it Fairway of Dreams. And the whole thing might collapse from the sheer weight of all that mystical hooey if it weren't for Redford's exquisite eye, his restraint, his ability to tell a story using the camera. Somewhere in here, when nobody was looking, Redford became a supremely elegant director. Check out The Horse Whisperer--sadly neglected. Redford may not be in tune with our times. He likes to work slow, let a movie gradually sink in, and that's not exactly what, say, Charlie's Angels is up to. But perhaps because I'm getting older, that slow, deliberate pace now strikes me as a form of grace. Set in Savannah, Ga., circa 1930, The Legend of Bagger Vance lingers over the lush greens of a championship golf course, over the ancient irons and woods, the baggy pants that stop at the knee, the faces creased in concentration, the bodies coiled for action and, last but certainly not least, a golfer's swing, that beautiful torquing of the legs and waist and shoulders, which sends those little white balls off into the clouds. The whole movie's about losing your swing--a tired metaphor that Redford treats as if he just heard it for the first time. It's also about losing your schwing, the connection between golf and life all but drilled into our brains. Matt Damon is Rannulph Junuh, a lost boy who seems to have the word "huh" built right into his name. At one time, Rannulph was the most promising golfer the South had ever seen. Then he went off to fight in World War I and came back a broken man, devoid of both swing and schwing. His former girlfriend, Adele (Charlize Theron, looking lovely but choking slightly on her Southern accent), has finally given up on him, but when she stages a $10,000 exhibition match between legends Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen to pull her family's golf resort through the Depression, Rannulph gets added to the card. One small problem: no swing. Enter Will Smith as Bagger Vance, a caddie with the wisdom of Uncle Remus and the patience of Uncle Tom.
So little is said about the darkness of Bagger's skin that you start to wonder whether it's a case of color-blind casting. Still, the role fits Smith like a well-worn golfing glove, and he makes the most of it, doling out lines like they were lumps of sugar. "You lost your swing," Bagger tells Rannulph. "We got to go find it." And off they go into the wild blue yonder of sports philosophizing, where you don't learn your perfect swing, you "remember" it from some past life--or the collective unconscious, I couldn't really tell which. Cynics may prefer to take this stuff with a shot of whiskey, à la Tin Cup. And I, for one, would prefer a movie that acknowledges the unlikelihood of a black man walking onto a Southern golf course during the Jim Crow era and telling everybody it don't mean a thing if you ain't got your swing. Still, Redford has basically done it, made me care about The Legend of Tiger Woods--oops, I mean Bagger Vance.