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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Nothing aids meditation about life better than having a heart attack on the golf course. You stare at the sky and as your life begins to pass before you, you fixate on your journey's most dramatic events. In this case, Old Hardy (Jack Lemmon), dropping to his knees and then his back while suffering his fifth or sixth coronary assault, allows his mind to drift to two seminal events in his life: one involves a brief scene recalling a World War One battle engaged in by his childhood hero, Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon) in which Junuh's witnessing the death of his battlefield buddies causes him to be shellshocked. The other, which Old Hardy narrates from time to time and which takes up the bulk of this story, involves his role as onlooker to dramatic events in Junuh's life--his romance with the drop-dead gorgeous Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron) and his Prozac-like revival from the long depression emanating from his trauma on the field of carnage.

When a guy says that golf is a game that no one wins but one which you can only play (as Old Hardy one once learned from a most unusual fellow), you wonder what he means by that: after all, there are winners in the sport, aren't there? You soon realize that Hardy is manipulating the game of golf as a metaphor for life, and here the geezer is on safer ground. Indeed, life is a game, and no one gets out alive. Ultimately we all lose. But how you play the game is what counts. To demonstrate this, "The Legend of Bagger Vance," directed with Robert Redford's restrained hand, turns what could have been a fortune-cookie story into a lovely tale which skirts the borders of the maudlin but remains as solidly authentic as the counsel it preaches. "The Legend of Bagger Vance" has added, mythic resonance since (as the splendid online critic Edward Johnson-Ott points out) the film is nothing short of a retelling from the Indian epic "The Mahabharata," in which Bhagavan (meaning "Lord" or "spiritual master") aids Arjuna thorugh a spiritual crisis. The name "Bagger Vance" sounds an awful lot like "Bhagavan" and "R. Junuh" is not unlike "Arjuna."

"The Legend of Bagger Vance" is situated in one of the most touristic cities, Savannah, Georgia, just as the Depression was to put thousands of its citizens out of work and would lead to the suicide of Adele's father--who had built a magnificent golf course only to see the land go unused. Adele, refusing to sell, takes a chance on attracting national publicity by announcing a competition between two of the world's great golfers, the strikingly handsome Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and a fellow known to put on a good show as well as belt out a great game, Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill). To attract the ardent interest of the locals, she also invites a man with whom she enjoyed a pre-war romance, Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), who has "lost his swing" and spends his time holed up with his heavy-drinking, card- playing pals.

While Junuh has to be roped into the joining the game given his utter lack of confidence, who better able to do the convincing than Hollywood's most strikingly attractive performer? As the bold entrepreneur impresario, Charlize Theron's Adele could probably convince hell to freeze over, though she is unable to get her depressed boy friend to do much on the golf course--not until the mysterious Bagger Vance emerges from the nocturnal mist insisting that with a little help from a concerned caddy, Junuh can get his groove back.

Redford's movie, scripted by Jeremy Leven from Steven Pressfield's nostalgic novel, follows the trajectory of Frank Coraci's "The Waterboy"--in-the-dumps guy finds his authentic self and emerges as hero--but oh, what a difference. While "The Waterboy" is a pathetic, dumbed down attempt at comedy, "Bagger Vance" turns what could have been fortune-cookie maudlin into a tender, well-acted, and most of all controlled and adult yarn whose mythic roots could scarcely be lost on any viewer. The expressive J. Michael Moncrief in the role of young Hardy Greaves is not a cutesy-putesy sitcom kid in the game to attract the ahhhs and ohhs and look-how-darling crowd but is as genuine an idol- worshipping kid can be, a sight to be seen by today's youth who are allegedly bereft of real heroes. As Adele, Theron shows us that saving her golf course is important but even more consequential is revving up and saving her relationship with her true love. Will Smith is the perfect spirit, giving advice like an ordinary human being, a caddy in fact, and not with the lighting bolts and special effects visions so often used to designate supernatural elements. Even the crowds, as well-behaved as they are enthusiatic, give testament to Robert Redford's vision, the belief that you need no blaring soundtracks or melodramatic brushes to represent the broad spectrum of human emotion. This is the way to tell a story.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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