The Legend of Bagger Vance
2000, PG-13, 113 min. Directed by Robert Redford. Starring Will Smith, Matt Damon, Charlize Theron, Bruce Mcgill, Joel Gretsch, J. Michael Moncrief, Peter Gerety, Lane Smith, Jack Lemmon.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 3, 2000
Not since Shoeless Joe Jackson walked out from behind the tall cornstalks and onto that movie's Field of Dreams has a Hollywood sports movie appealed to our national penchant for viewing athletic competition as a metaphor for life. Much like Shoeless Joe, Bagger Vance (Smith) also wanders out from the depths of darkness in Robert Redford's new film to share his aphoristic mumbo-jumbo with this movie's struggling golf hero Rannulph Junuh (Damon). He scatters mystical wisdom like the “build it and they will come” contingent scattered ballfield seed, and before you know it, everyone becomes a believer. If only they could articulate what it is that they believe in. For Bagger Vance, what he believes in is the “authentic swing.” Everyone has one: It's the one motion that belongs exclusively to its owner and to no one else. Capt. Junah has lost his. Once a golden boy of 1910s Savannah in love with pretty society girl Adele Invergordon (Theron) and a marvel on the golf course, Junah goes off to the Great War and returns home a drunken wreck. Ten years pass, the Depression now colors the fabric of life in Savannah, and Adele wants to rescue the golf course she inherited by staging a high-stakes competition. A Savannah native -- Junah -- is called on to play against two historic golf figures Walter Hagen (McGill) and Bobby Jones (Gretsch, who may be the real golden boy of this story, and certainly a find as an actor). The Legend of Bagger Vance is the story of Junah's redemption -- or the rediscovery of his authentic swing. The movie is narrated in voiceover by an uncredited Jack Lemmon, and told from his point-of-view as a young boy. The story, however, never decides on whom to focus. Is it this young boy/old man's story about why he loves the game of golf, Junah's story of his return to the living, or, as we're led to believe, the legend of Bagger Vance? And what about the fascinating story inherent in Adele's situation as a single woman who, though jilted by both her suitor and her father, is strong enough to fight back against all adversity? Adapted by Jeremy Leven (Don Juan DeMarco) from the novel by Steven Pressfield, the movie is a pleasant mix although it rarely fully engages the viewer. Golf onscreen is about as absorbing as it is on TV and nearly half the movie is devoted to the 36-hole final competition. Still, The Legend of Bagger Vance has that Redford look of quality. Stunning camera shots by ace Michael Ballhaus are lovely to look at, and the performances are all excellent, although you wish all these actors had more to do. (Those who are just curious to find out if Will Smith can carry a dramatic lead -- limited and cryptic though this one is -- should check out his 1993 film Six Degrees of Separation. The answer is yes.) Mostly, however, this movie makes the most sense as a “Robert Redford film,” reminding us along the way of such films as The Natural, Downhill Racer, The Horse Whisperer, and Quiz Show in its focus on sports metaphors for life struggles and golden boys gone bad. Perhaps it's correct that behind every cliché lies a deep or hidden truth, but finding them in The Legend of Bagger Vance is like disgorging a golf ball from a sandtrap.