The Perfect Game for Whatever Ails You

Robert Redford’s The Legend of Bagger Vance , from a screenplay by Jeremy Leven, based on the novel by Steven Pressfield, endows the game of golf with enough supernatural spirituality to start a new religion. Most of the movie is built around a golf match involving two real-life legends of the sport, Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill), and a fictional hero, Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon). The year is 1931, and Junuh is in the tournament simply because he’s a native son of Savannah, Ga., where it is being held as a promotion for the city, mired, like the rest of America, in the Great Depression. Junuh had dropped out of sight for more than 10 years. Before the U.S. entered World War I, he had won all the major junior tournaments in the South and was poised to enter all the senior tournaments. When the war came, he enlisted immediately and led his contingent from Savannah in a premature victory march through the streets. On the battlefield, however, the wholesale slaughter of his buddies made him lose faith in everything, including his love for the town belle, Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron) and, worst of all, his classic golf swing.

Then along comes Bagger Vance (Will Smith), seemingly out of nowhere, applying for a job as Junuh’s caddy while sounding more like his psychotherapist: “Inside each and every one of us is our one true, authentic swing. Something we was born with. Something that’s ours and ours alone. Something that can’t be learned … something that’s got to be remembered.”

If I sound less than sympathetic to this metaphorical malarkey, it may be because my only direct encounter with the sport ended abruptly when I hurled my club further than I had ever driven the ball. Besides, I doubt that Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus ever needed a Bagger Vance to come out of that fairway in the sky to provide motivation.

Indeed, the movie is framed by the morbid narration of an elderly hacker (Jack Lemmon) who has had a coronary while coming out of the woods after a search for his errant golf ball. He was once-that is, back in 1931-a hero-worshipping child named Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief), and almost everything that happens in the movie is seen through his eyes.

I suppose that I should indicate at this point that the currently hot Ms. Theron has a more sizable part than I have suggested, as the intrepid daughter of a financier who commits suicide when he loses everything in the Crash except his dream golf course. It is Ms. Theron’s Adele who persuades her father’s creditors and the town elders to stage the Jones-Hagen match, and it is Adele who offers her body to the hero in a last-ditch effort to make him come out of spiritual retirement. Wide-eyed Hardy gets to watch Adele perform a modified strip-tease (down to her period underwear) for Rannulph, but all to no avail. Nothing happens in this coy on-again-off-again romance except that the character of Adele becomes increasingly harsh and strident.

There are bits and pieces of Depression-era wisdom dispensed by a few of the minor characters, but they are swallowed up by Bagger Vance’s fortune-cookie swagger.

Meanwhile, Vance roams freely in the golf club’s locker rooms, and here and there whites and blacks are seen mingling freely. The film doesn’t press the issue, but I still felt uncomfortable watching Mr. Smith’s Bagger acting so free and easy with the white power structure. Back in 1931, Mr. Smith would not have been treated to top billing as a reigning superstar. Even so, his Bagger Vance is too otherworldly to cast unchaste eyes at Adele.

Of course, times have changed, but it is misleading to depict the old South as cutely colorful without confronting the ugly reality of racism, especially in the ultra-exclusive world of tournament golf from which a 1931 Tiger Woods would have been forcibly ejected. Too much of the nostalgia for the past tends not to be founded on warts-and-all accurate records. I might be less censorious if I did not feel deep down that The Legend of Bagger Vance is full of hot air.

A Covert Contribution to the Gore Campaign?

Rod Lurie’s The Contender , from his screenplay, turns out to be a curiously timely feminist fantasy in this increasingly depressing election year. This is to say that if George W. Bush is elected, all the bigots and Neanderthals who are holding their breath will come out from under their rocks and bedevil us for the next four years. Meanwhile, a poll in California shows a majority for the fictional liberal President in The West Wing over both Vice President Gore and Governor Bush. So it isn’t the ideological message that counts anymore, but media charisma.

In this respect, President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) in The Contender is both telegenic and politically correct when he chooses a woman, Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), to fill the Vice Presidential vacancy in his administration. He becomes even more courageous by standing firm in the face of pictorial allegations that Hanson engaged in a consensual gang bang in college. The Senator refuses to dignify the allegations with any comment, on the grounds that her private life is nobody’s business but her own. (Paging Hillary Clinton.) She even proudly affirms that she is an atheist and that her only cathedral is the one that served the Founding Fathers. When one contemplates the piety and religiosity of all the major candidates for high offices this year, one wonders what country Mr. Lurie is thinking of on the screen.

Ms. Allen is being touted for Oscar consideration in a year that is relentlessly sub-par, and the beleaguered state of her character provides an undeniably juicy role. It has been suggested that The Contender has been designed as a covert contribution to the Gore campaign. I just hope enough people see it for it to make a difference. Gary Oldman as Senator Shelly Runyon does his part in demonizing the extreme right with an apoplectic performance whenever he confronts the buzzwords of liberal feminist doctrine. Unfortunately, he is too bad to be true; the bad guys are smoother and subtler than all that. Christian Slater’s Reginald Webster provides the conservative swing vote after being repulsed by the unscrupulousness of Senator Runyon’s tactics. All in all, there are enough facile contrivances in the plot to make everything come out stirringly right in the end and not at all as outrageous as it first appears.

Hence, whatever its limitations as a credible political melodrama, The Contender is to be commended for spelling out many of the pressing issues of our time, as opposed to the self-righteous homilies of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington , the sterile anti-politician cynicism of The Candidate and the glib pseudo-realism of The Best Man . The Contender , by contrast, does not spare the rhetoric in this election year. Ms. Allen’s climactic credo is alone worth the price of admission.

Strippers Are People, Too

Julia Query and Vicky Funari’s Live Nude Girls, Unite! is not at all as licentious as its title implies. Neither is it entirely free of a certain pathetic grotesqueness as it tracks the path of Ms. Query, a self-proclaimed lesbian, stand-up comedian, peep-show stripper and daughter of a feminist activist, as she sets about organizing the only union of strippers in the United States.

Ms. Query works mostly out of San Francisco, which has always functioned more permissively as part of the counter-culture. Yet the idea of strippers organizing against the owners who exploit them tends to defeat the erotic illusion sought by their customers. In a puritanical society, there is little official sympathy for women who violate the age-old standards of decency. Hence, Ms. Query finds herself battling the inhibitions of her companions in asserting their rights as professionals. Ms. Query herself has no such inhibitions as she protests against such injustices as “stage fees” to perform, requests to “date” the owners’ friends and the trend toward making the work less like performing and more like prostitution.

The one gripping sequence in the film involves Ms. Query’s confrontation with her activist mother, Dr. Joyce Wallace, well known for her street work with prostitutes and AIDS victims. Mother and daughter meet at the First International Conference on Prostitution, and the mother is appalled to discover that her daughter is using her body instead of her mind to make a living. An impasse results, and Ms. Query is too honest a filmmaker to smooth it over. The question remains: What’s a smart girl like her doing in a business like this?