With a cast that includes Matt Damon (1999's "The Talented Mr. Ripley"), Will
Smith (1998's "Enemy of the State"), and Charlize Theron (1997's "Devil's
Advocate"), and the classy Robert Redford (1998's "The Horse Whisperer") at
the directing helm, "The Legend of Bagger Vance," based upon the novel by
Steven Pressfield, has all of the pedigree to be a gorgeously photographed,
thoughtful, low-key character drama. After sifting through all 127 minutes of
it, however, at least I can still say it is well photographed. Director
Redford has created a slow-moving, occasionally tedious film set in the Great
Depression of the early 1930s, and then deals with none of the hardships or
issues that went along with the time period, instead opting to weave a sort
of half-hearted fantasy that is rarely ever involving.
Following the untimely death of her father, wealthy Savannah heiress Adele
Invergordon (Charlize Theron), in an attempt to avoid foreclosure of the
country club that is owned by her family, creates a huge golf tournament
between pros Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill) with
the grand prize being a whopping $10,000. Searching for a third player who
will stand for the great city of Savannah itself, the town elects the
services of one Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), a once-great golfer and WWI vet
(not to mention Adele's ex-lover) who has slid into obscurity in the
backwoods of Savannah, spending his nights drinking his life away with a
group of poker buddies.
While on the golf course one night mourning the loss of his swing and
debating whether to accept the offer to compete in the tournament, Rannulph
meets Bagger Vance (Will Smith), an honest mystery man who becomes his
personal muse (and caddie). Setting out to help Rannulph find himself once
again through the game he used to love so much, Bagger seems to be dedicating
his whole being to aiding in Rannulph's personal redemption, but who exactly
is he? And where did he come from?
Opening with a silly wraparound sequence (featuring Jack Lemmon), and then
leading into a neverending narration that resembles a cheesy history lesson
on WWI and the troubles in the south, it isn't until nearly the twenty-minute
mark that "The Legend of Bagger Vance" finds its footing. For a director as
skilled as Robert Redford, whose "The Horse Whisperer" pulled you into its
story from the very beginning, this noticeable flaw could have easily been
corrected. Instead, it comes off as sloppy filmmaking.
The potentially intriguing (if overworn) issue of race relations in the
south, circa 1930, is overlooked, bypassed for a tale that is deeply
sugarcoated and unconvincing. Whether Redford wanted to make a realistic
drama or a reality-based fantasy, there is no excuse for not even making a
mention of the fact that Bagger Vance is a black man. Had he shown up in
Savannah, Georgia in the midst of the Great Depression, it is a given that he
wouldn't have exactly been welcomed with open arms by the townspeople, and he
certainly would not have been allowed to act as a caddie on a ritzy country
club resort. Furthermore, the subplot about the Great Depression that has
recently befallen on Savannah acts as a cheap plotting device, instead of a
thoughtful part of the story.
Lest it seem that there is nothing to recommend in "The Legend of Bagger
Vance," it should be noted that this is definitely not the case. While the
characters aren't exactly poster children for three-dimensionality, the
actors are good enough that they easily overcome the snags. Matt Damon is
believable as the internally lost Rannulph Junuh, even if we never get a full
sense of why he has disappeared into a little, black hole, while Will Smith's
sweet-faced Bagger acts as a fitting partner to Rannulph. Smith's role is
unchallenging, but he does what he can with it, and it's nice to see him
appearing in a film void of aliens and shoot-'em-ups. And Charlize Theron, as
the conflicted Adele, is very good, perhaps the standout in the cast.
Impassioned, subtly funny, and strong-willed, Theron knows how to light up
the screen, and deserves a leading role soon.
Also effective is the romantic relationship between Rannulph and Adele. With
only a small amount of time dedicated to this subplot, Damon and Theron
successfully convince us of their strong past relationship, and screenwriter
Jeremy Leven makes every line of his smart dialogue count.
What "The Legend of Bagger Vance" comes down to is its climactic fourth round
in the golf tournament, with Rannulph pacing just behind his two competitors.
Manipulative, more than a little implausible, but with beautiful
cinematography (by Michael Ballhaus), to boot, it sums up the entire film.
The outcome of the contest may be a little surprising, but getting to that
point is a battle in itself.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman