Fairway Zen

Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon) has lost his swing. A golden boy of golf with infinite promise, he left Savannah, Ga., to enlist in World War I, and returned, years later, a broken man. Now it's 1931, in the depths of the Great Depression. Junuh's long-abandoned girlfriend, Adele (Charlize Theron), desperate to save the country club her rich, dead father has left behind, brings together the two greatest golfers in the world, Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill), in an exhibition match. (These were the real golf giants of the era.) But to succeed she needs the long-vanished local hero to come out of his funk and return to the green. Enter the mysterious Bagger Vance (Will Smith), part-time caddie and spiritual guru, to teach the shattered Junuh how to regain his "authentic swing."

This is the premise of Robert Redford's "The Legend of Bagger Vance," a handsome, pleasingly mushy tall tale whose outcome is never in doubt. Adapted from a Steven Pressfield novel by Jeremy Leven, it's the story of how a man rediscovers his soul and overcomes adversity, yet its brooding hero is oddly underdeveloped. We know about his crisis because the narrator (Jack Lemmon) tells us, and because, in the movie's shorthand for despair, he drinks, doesn't shave and plays cards on the wrong side of the tracks. Damon is quietly compelling in the part, but we'd like a few more details, thanks. A similar sketchiness afflicts the love story. Theron, not at her best playing a spunky Southern belle, seems to be doing just fine without her beau, and the lack of chemistry between her and Damon doesn't convince us otherwise.

The real sparks are between Damon and the mischievously enigmatic Smith, who dispenses wisdom like a cross between Krishnamurti and Uncle Remus. And also between Damon and a scene-stealing 12-year-old named J. Michael Moncrief, a Junuh worshiper who grows up to be the movie's aged narrator. Redford, no fool, knows what will put a lump in your throat. Tonally reminiscent of both "The Natural" and "Field of Dreams," lushly appointed and shot in burnished golden tones, this is the sort of movie in which a great golf shot is accompanied by the "In Paradisum" section of Faure's "Requiem." If that sounds like your cup of spiritual tea, "Bagger Vance" serves it up with extra lumps of sugar.