November 9, 2000

Well Over Par

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Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon) is lost. The once golden golf hero from Savanna, Georgia returns home shaken by World War I. “Unable to face a hero’s welcome,” as the narrator begins, he throws away golf as well as his former girlfriend, Southern belle Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron), and takes to drinking and playing cards.

Fourteen years after Junuh’s return from the war and in the throes of the Great Depression, Adele attempts to save her father’s rich golf club by hosting an exhibition match between Bobby Jones (Jed Grestch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill), the two golf greats of the time. To defend the South, the town demands that Junuh represent them in the match. Junuh refuses, unable to find the swing that once exalted him to glory. Enter Bagger Vance (Will Smith), a Christ-like, caddy guru who convinces Junuh to play in the match as well as face his demons.

“A man’s grip on his golf swing is like his grip on the world,” Bagger Vance states in the movie. If only the film itself could take its own advice and get a grip on its story. It has beautiful camera angles and cinematography, and is obviously in love with the South and the game of golf. It has a weird, quiet feel to it and there are many good moments.

But even Robert Redford’s artful direction and Matt Damon and Will Smiths’ sweet performances can’t shake the fact that the characters have no substance to them and that the story is totally predictable. The relationship between Junuh and Adele, for example, is annoyingly underdeveloped, and some of the lines Will Smith is forced to deliver are so sentimental that they trivialize the religion and spirituality the movie takes so seriously. One wonders if, instead of seeing this movie, we could have all just read something good by Kerouac and said to hell with it.

There is a point in the film when Bagger tells Junuh that it’s time to let go of the past. Junuh replies despairingly, “I don’t know how.” Matt Damon’s eyes and the movie’s lighting slyly attempt to create a truly great movie moment here. But then the film starts once again to take itself way too seriously, blaring Faust