THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE
The Legend of Bagger Vance, Robert Redford's golfing fable, isn't a work of any depth, and there's precious little intelligence on display, but it sure looks pretty - so pretty, in fact, that audiences might not realize that the movie itself is a dud. From the golden-hued cinematography of the great Michael Ballhaus to the stunning, Depression-era costuming and production design, it's clear that the film has been made with the utmost care and a real attention to physical and aural beauty; if you didn't understand a word of English, you might find it a masterpiece.
Bagger Vance's script, direction, and lead performances, however, don't have nearly the same magic; it's a case of a lot of technical skill being put to the service of something that probably shouldn't have been filmed at all. At least not by Robert Redford. After a brief, modern-day prologue, the film moves to Savannah, Georgia, shortly after the start of the Great Depression. We are introduced to high-society gal Adele (Charlize Theron), who plans to save her late daddy's luxury golf course by arranging a match between golfing greats Bobby Jones (Redford clone Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill). The city councilmen go along with the idea only if a Savannah native joins the match, and their choice is Adele's ex-beau, the once-great Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon). After experiencing a breakdown during World War I, Junuh has retreated to the bottle and away from Adele's affections, and initially wants no part of Adele's plan, having "lost his swing."
These opening scenes are so badly staged and ill-performed that you may feel you're being kidded. Theron, playing one of those flighty-but-grounded Southern belles that don't work outside of Tennessee Williams, seems desperately out of her league. The councilmen, prone to speaking in unison and with great braggadocio, are as stylized (in an unfunny way) as the yes-men in the Coen brothers' Hudsucker Proxy. Damon, with his calmness and direct gaze, is no one's idea of a tormented drunk. And Redford's direction does them no good. He vacillates between pushy close-ups and obvious tableaux; Redford may be going for "heightened reality" here - again, in the manner of the Coens - but he shows no instinct for it.
The film finally perks up a bit when mysterious stranger Bagger Vance (Will Smith) literally appears out of the darkness, offering to serve as Junuh's caddy and help him find his "authentic swing." Smith is playing one of those impossibly wise and helpful spiritual figures that fables like Bagger Vance require - think Michael Clarke Duncan's John Coffey in The Green Mile - and even though Smith seems all wrong for the period and practices an overdeliberate Southern drawl, we're moderately eager to see how this man will shape up Damon's morose golfer.
You'll never quite find out. Instead, you'll hear a lot of gobbledygook about concentration and focus and imagining yourself alone on the golf course with just the ball and the cup, and Smith delivers this pap with such religious solemnity you'd think it's meant to be advice for the ages; in Redford's golf-as-metaphor-for-life mentality, it's probably meant to be. (Chevy Chase did it all much more succinctly in Caddyshack when he said merely, "Be the ball.") The movie wavers between the banality of the golf scenes (there's no surprise to any of them; if Junuh follows Bagger's advice he'll fare well, and if he doesn't, he'll fare poorly) to the banality of Junuh and Adele's affair (their every scene together is a chance to visit the concession counter); anyone afraid that Bagger Vance would be boring because it's about golf is wrong. It's boring despite being about golf.
In a movie this sedate, you're grateful for whatever moments of spice you get, and here they come courtesy of a few supporting players. McGill offers some terrifically smarmy moments; Lane Smith, whose part seems like it was cut drastically in the editing room, provides a juicy feeling of the period as a New York sportswriter; and a wonderful young newcomer named J. Michael Moncrief plays the film's Junuh-worshipping narrator as an eleven-year old. Moncrief is the strongest performer in the movie, because he brings some surprise to his line readings and seems to really believe what he's saying; his role isn't any better conceived than those played by Smith, Damon or Theron, but with his earnestness and humor, he easily wipes them off the screen. Visuals aside, The Legend of Bagger Vance is a major disappointment, but this kid shows how this clunky, laborious fantasy might have actually worked - by chucking the metaphysics and going straight for the heart.
I thoroughly detested the film version of Charlie's Angels, and you'll know within the first ten minutes if you're going to hate it, too. After a modestly entertaining prologue, we find our heroines (Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu) engaged in one of those mock-spontaneous laugh-fests that the TV series often ended with, where the women guffawed at their own sexiness and corny jokes. But something's wrong. Diaz is pitched way too high, as if overacting her ditsiness and sex appeal was the only way to make it through the film (does she know how badly she's coming off?); Barrymore seems vacant, like her body agreed to do the movie and her mind is elsewhere; and Liu, whose natural steeliness and bitchiness often works in her favor, looks incredibly uncomfortable and a little put off. In short, they all appear to be commentingon the Charlie's Angels series, saying, "You think we're just a group of great-looking bimbos? Well, we'll show you." These Angels are not only too hip for the room, they're too hip for the movie; if you're not going to hire actresses who can lighten up a bit and enjoy the trashiness of it all, what's the point of remaking Charlie's Angels in the first place?
No one is going to the film for the plot, which is suitably ridiculous; presumably, the men are there to leer and the women are there to cheer the strong female protagonists. But these Angels are the opposite of strong female characters; they embody every witless stereotype in the book. The director, video impressario McG, shoots their "hot" moments like shampoo commercials and their action scenes like parodies of The Matrix. The film goes from dreadful to worse, and I haven't even mentioned how completely wasted and uninspired Bill Murray is in the Bosley role; it might be the first time I didn't even smile at seeing him on film. Charlie's Angels is meant to be breezy pop entertainment but just comes off as smug and embarrassing; it makes the silly, guilty-pleasure TV show it's based on look positively brilliant.