The Legend of Bagger Vance
Screenplay : Jeremy Leven (based on the novel by Steven Pressfield)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Will Smith (Bagger Vance), Matt Damon (Rannulph Junuh), Charlize Theron (Adele Invergordon), J. Michael Moncrief (Hardy Greaves), Joel Gretsch (Bobby Jones), Bruce McGill (Walter Hagen), Andrea Powell (Mary Jones), Jack Lemmon (Old Hardy Greaves)
The Legend of Bagger Vance is a Depression-era fable about a mysterious caddy who helps an emotionally scarred veteran of World War I, who was at one time the most promising professional golfer in the South, "find his swing." Directed with gentle humor and grand sweep by Robert Redford (A River Runs Through It, The Horse Whisperer), The Legend of Bagger Vance is guiltlessly corny and whimsically melodramatic. No one will mistake this fable for anything remotely approaching reality: It takes place in an ephemeral, idealized America of the 1930s, where race doesn't matter, people are poor, but not ragged, and an entire city can be rejuvenated by watching a golf match.
If Redford had weighed the film down with too much New Age mysticism and self-importance, it would have sunk like a stone despite all the beautiful photography of misty fairways in the morning light. Thankfully, though, Redford infuses the film with a sense of humor, and he doesn't mind playing with the tone from time to time, introducing jazzy period music and humorous one-liners to lighten the mood.
Redford is, of course, also greatly aided by the casting of Will Smith, who keeps just enough of his reliable, charming persona without making the titular caddy into a predominantly "Will Smith character." Bagger Vance literally walks into the film from out of nowhere, and walks out of it to return from whence he came. He is immediately imbued with an otherworldly glow, although that glow is more symbolic, as the actual angelic backlighting is reserved for Redford surrogate Matt Damon, looking an awful lot like Brad Pitt's Redford surrogate in A River Runs Through It (1992).
Damon plays the fallen Rannulph Junuh, who was once the golfing golden boy of Savannah, Georgia, before combat experience in World War I left him so shaken and emotionally distraught that he literally disappeared. The majority of the narrative takes place during the Great Depression, when Savannah is hit hard by unemployment and doubt. The story is told through the wide eyes of 10-year-old Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief, played as an old man in the framing story by Jack Lemmon), a boy who is ashamed that his father, once a store owner, has been reduced to sweeping the streets. Hardy is the story's emotional core, and although other characters are given top billing, it is his outlook on life that is most affected by the story's events.
Junuh is coaxed back onto the greens when his former lover, the saucy and determined Adele (Charlize Theron), cooks up an exhibition golf tournament in the hopes of saving from bankruptcy the country club her late father built. She convinces the country's two preeminent golfers, Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill), to play, but the locals want a Savannah native to compete, as well. Thus, Junuh is convinced to emerge from the haze of smoke, whiskey, and backroom gambling in which he has submerged himself for 10 years in an effort to forget his previous life.
Junuh is aided in the three-day golf tournament by the mysterious Bagger Vance, who offers him philosophical advice on both putting and living, all while carrying his golf bag. As fly fishing was turned into a metaphor for life in A River Runs Through It, The Legend of Bagger Vance somehow manages to do the same thing with golf. Bagger remains a level-headed, patient sage throughout, dispensing wisdom and uplift in golf-related terms whenever Junuh is most in doubt. Hokey as that sounds, Smith manages to pull it off by refusing to let Bagger become a bore. Smith manages to radiate both intelligence and wit without letting the two become conflated.
Damon is a somewhat more problematic casting choice, not because of his acting ability, but because of his physical appearance. Although Junuh would arguably be only in his late 20s, Damon's face simply doesn't carry the kind of premature age that one would associate with an emotionally scarred character who has lost a decade of life to drinking. During Junuh's low period, Damon hides in a cloud of cigarette smoke, film noir shadows, and a three-day old beard, but the presence of these predetermined visual cues draw more attention to themselves than they do to Junuh's emotional damage.
Still, The Legend of Bagger Vance works because Redford eschews the melancholy nature of The Horse Whisperer for a more lighthearted approach. He gives plenty of screen time to his three principles, and they have good chemistry that helps the story move along. Belief in the relationship between Junuh and Adele is a bit strained at times, but Damon and Theron have enough fire between them to make it work.
One almost wishes that Smith's Bagger Vance would have had a larger role in the story, outside of standing in the out-of-focus background and telling the real truth so that Damon's Junuh could redeem himself. Yet, while that is the script's positioning of the character, Smith gives Bagger that extra boost that lifts him beyond supporting character status. You may not remember everything Bagger says, but it's hard to forget the steady, whimsically enlightened look on his face while he's saying it.
©2000 James Kendrick