The Legend of Bagger Vance from 2000 with Will Smith, Matt Damon, Charlize Theron, Bruce McGill and Joel Gretsch
Charm and whimsy are hard to build a movie around, especially if you don't want to end up with a treacly mess on your hands. But it works in The Legend of Bagger Vance because part of director Robert Redford's brand is doing period films with charm and whimsy that know their limits.
Who wouldn't want super cool, kindly and insightful Will Smith as a guardian angel? While Will Smith anchors the charm and whimsy here, an equally talented cast moves this two-hour effort about a mythical Depression-era golf match along with enchanting ease.
Charlize Theron, the wonderfully named southern-bell-with-grit Adele Invergordon, facing bankruptcy as her deceased father's luxurious golf resort struggles to stay afloat in the 1930s, hits upon the idea for an all-star golf match.
The challenge is she needs to convince her estranged husband, former young golf phenom, Matt Damon to be the local star player joining famous golf champions Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen.
Damon, a World War I vet, suffering from what we'd come to know is post traumatic stress disorder, hasn't played golf or, well, with his estranged wife, Theron, since returning from the Great War. Yet, without his participation, the creditors won't support Theron's Hail Mary to save her resort.
In one of the movie's highlight scenes, Theron offers herself up to a mildly drunk and dispirited Damon in return for his agreeing to play in the tournament. But Damon, knowing he's lost his golf swing - sure it's a metaphor for his post-war life and sex drive - rejects a beguiling and disrobing Theron. Wait, what? Yup, she had to put her dress back on and leave untouched.
Enter Will Smith as Bagger Vance, the ethereal philosopher caddie. Playing Damon's conscience and spiritual advisor, Smith forces Damon to confront his demons and decide if he's ready to fight to get his golf swing and, by proxy, his life back.
With the tournament now on, Smith deftly guides Damon through the emotional preparation for play as well as offering real caddie advice. The movie could have coasted from there into a quick match focused on Damon's resurrection.
But Bobby Jones, played with professional cool by Joel Gretsch, and Walter Hagen, played with perfect zeal by Bruce McGill, take the movie up another notch.
The tournament becomes a metaphor for different approaches to golf and life itself with Jones representing the consummate and methodical professional; Hagen, the gambler player making great errors and great saves; and Damon, the underdog comeback story of a man finding his way in life again.
(Spoiler alert) Sure it's a well-crafted adult fairy tale, but as Damon reclaims his swing, you can't help cheering him on. When he and Theron re-unite afterwards dancing under the stars, you feel happy.
Charm and whimsy, as noted, can overwhelm a movie, but with Redford at the helm, wonderful source material (a novel by Steven Pressfield) and a talented cast, The Legend of Bagger Vance strikes a balance that leaves you smiling.
N.B. The movie is 1920s and 1930s eye candy from beginning to end. The cars, clothes, architecture and other period details are beautiful, which, combined with Redford's directing, make the era look prettier than it probably ever really did.