Since we’ve already had faith-based features involving football (“Woodlawn,” “Facing the Giants”), baseball (“Where Hope Grows”), basketball (“Slamma Jamma”), boxing (“Carman: The Champion”), competitive skateboarding (“Hardflip”) and even mixed martial arts (“The Fight Within”), it was doubtless inevitable that someone would produce a movie where the Lord works in mysterious ways on the golf course. Robert Redford’s “The Legend of Bagger Vance” (2000) didn’t quite qualify, given the nondenominational nature of its spirituality. On the other hand, “Walking With Herb” is explicitly and unashamedly upfront about depicting how an agent of God, or someone of an even higher pay grade, might directly intervene in providing a shot at redemption — and no handicap at all — for a golfer far from the fairway.
Striking perfect balances of gruffness and grief, taciturn skepticism and bemused self-awareness, Edward James Olmos is dead solid perfect in the lead role of Joe Amable-Amo, a bank manager and devoted family man in Las Cruces, N.M., who during the movie’s opening minutes is brutally slapped out of his comfort zone — and effectively drained of his belief in a loving God — by the deaths of his son-in-law and, not long afterwards, his young grandchild.
Joe’s loss of faith is a major concern to his appreciably more devout wife, Sheila (Kathleen Quinlan), though it has not yet placed an irreparable strain on their marriage. (Indeed, one of the grace notes of “Walking With Herb” is its non-condescending depiction of an affectionate long-married couple who, the movie slyly suggests, might appear yet more affectionate if the filmmakers didn’t want a PG rating.) And even after he experiences the high-tech equivalent of a road-to-Damascus moment in his office, complete with messages from God flashing on his computer and belching from his printer, Joe remains, at best, agnostic.
Enter Herb, a chopper-riding, garishly clad rowdy robustly played by George Lopez, who introduces himself as a messenger from God Almighty, and insists that he’s been sent to help Joe complete a divinely ordained mission. Specifically, Joe — a once-promising amateur golfer who hung up his clubs decades earlier to concentrate on familial responsibilities — is to get back into the swing of things by competing in a series of events leading to a high-stakes tournament portentously titled Championship of the World Entire.
Joe initially is incredulous, to put it mildly, and not just because Herb’s game plan would call for him to play against linksmen half his age. In fact, even Sheila isn’t easily convinced that God would personally provide for her husband a combination of caddy, golf tutor, and scripture-spouting life coach. But when they realize that attracting endorsement money and cash prizes could enable them to help their widowed daughter, Audrey (Jessica Medoff) — who operates a nonprofit school for homeless children — well, one thing leads to another, and wonders are performed.
The film’s pedigree may be of particular interest to some audiences: The screenplay is the last produced work by the late Mark Medoff, the award-winning playwright who first attracted attention in New York during the 1970s with the brutally intense “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?” and the savagely comical “The Wager,” then scored an Oscar nomination for adapting his Broadway hit “Children of a Lesser God” into a 1986 movie. Medoff spent most of his career teaching playwriting and acting at New Mexico State U. in Las Cruces.
Another member of the NMSU faculty, Ross Kagan Marks, capably directed this film. Olmos and Quinlan generate a pleasing chemistry together. The supporting cast includes such standouts as Billy Boyd as Archie Borthwick, a Scottish golfer so frustrated by blowing big tournaments that he snaps — in sign language — at his deaf wife (Tami Lee Santimyer); Christopher McDonald as Archie’s caddy, whose patient even-temperedness would rival that of a saint; and Johnathan McClain as bank employee Dave Berkowitz, who sports a yarmulke to add a touch of ecumenism to the proceedings.
The real heart of “Walking With Herb” is, not surprisingly, the sometimes edgy, sometimes affectionate give-and-take between Lopez and Olmos, who infuse occasional maudlin stretches of dialogue with the solid ring of emotional truth, and enhance their lighter scenes, of which there are several, with a welcome sense of playfulness.
Trouble is, “Walking With Herb” never really establishes a persuasive reason why God would zero in on this particular protagonist for such personalized inspiration. During the climactic scenes, there are hints that Joe’s miraculous achievements have been plotted out to change the course of someone else’s life, but that isn’t fully convincing either. It’s far easier to accept — and, yes, believe — Herb’s revelation that, once he’s finished with Joe, he has more important tasks on his schedule, and an immeasurably more significant soul to save.
But never mind: Such nagging implausibilities often are par for the course in faith-based scenarios of this sort. Overall, “Walking With Herb” — which is based, not incidentally, on a novel of the same name by a Los Cruces banker and golfer — is a genially pleasant comedy-drama that is elevated by the sincerity and conviction of actors (especially Olmos) fully invested in their roles.