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The Legend of Bagger Vance

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The Legend of Bagger Vance

Starring: Will Smith, Matt Damon
Director: Robert Redford
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 127 Minutes
Release Date: November 2000
Genres: Drama, Sports

*Also starring: Charlize Theron, Joel Gretsch, Bruce McGill, Jack Lemmon, Thomas Jay Ryan, J. Michael Moncrief, Dermot Crowley, Peter Gerety

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
2½ stars out of 4

At first glance, "The Legend of Bagger Vance" appears to be simply an inspirational sports story, directed by Robert Redford with his customary elegance and economy. But there is something more going on here. Based on Steven Pressfield's book, "Bagger Vance" takes two renowned real-life Depression Era golfers and introduces them to a pair of characters from an ancient Hindu holy book. The result is a beautifully photographed, otherworldly fable that presents a Buddhist look at spirituality, set against an exhibition golf match.

It takes place in the late 1920s in Savannah, Georgia. Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron) decides to save the golf resort she inherited from her recently deceased father by staging a celebrity exhibition match featuring the two undisputed stars of the game, Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch, in a star-making performance as a charismatic Atlanta gentleman) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill, delightful as a flamboyant Yankee). To appease town leaders that want a Savannah native in the game, she reluctantly agrees to add a third player, one Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon).

Years ago, Junuh was her love, as well as the most promising young golfer in the South. But upon his return from fighting in the war, he became a recluse, shutting out Adele along with the rest of humanity, save for a few drinking and gambling friends. Local boy Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief) tries to convince Junuh to join the match, but the shattered ex-soldier resists, until a mysterious man named Bagger Vance (Will Smith) appears late in the night and offers his services as a caddy, and as a guide to help Junuh "find his swing."

Jeremy Leven's script strips the already-streamlined book down to its essence; Junuh's spiritual journey with Bagger Vance. Leven may have stripped away a bit too much the book introduces the two long after their teacher/student dynamic has been established, where the film depicts their relationship from the first meeting, with Vance initially coming off as a folksy enigma at best and a flake at worst.

Director Robert Redford draws warm, understated performances from the talented cast and creates a picture marked by good humor, rich tones and a welcome sense of restraint and balance. Occasionally, the score gets a bit heavy handed and the production skirts the edge of pretentiousness, but Redford keeps matters in check most of the time.

Now here's the fascinating part. Although the author of the book does not point this out, "Bagger Vance" is a retelling of a portion of the Indian epic, "The Mahabharata," where Bhagavan, an honorific title for the Lord or for a spiritual master (a title which sounds a lot like Bagger Vance) helps Arjuna (which sounds exactly like R. Junuh) through his spiritual crisis. Bhagavan aides Arjuna in recognizing who he really is, how he fits into the texture of existence and how to find peace in the midst of action.

Thanks to fine actors and Robert Redford's great directorial skills, "The Legend of Bagger Vance" can be enjoyed without that information, but placed in its proper context, the little truisms of the story become pieces in a vast, exotic puzzle that offers contentment when fully assembled.

Put that on your tee and swing at it.

Copyright 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott

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