The Legend of Bagger Vance

"The Legend of Bagger Vance" is a lightweight, modestly engaging yarn sporting reductive mystical and philosophical elements that are both valid and borderline silly. Robert Redford's telling of a fictional '30s golf match is very much of a piece with his numerous previous films about the "inner game" in athletics and self-realization.

The Legend of Bagger Vance

The Legend of Bagger Vance” is a lightweight, modestly engaging yarn sporting reductive mystical and philosophical elements that are both valid and borderline silly. Robert Redford’s carefully mounted telling of a fictional ’30s golf match between two real-life legends and a local Georgia champion is very much of a piece with his numerous previous films about the “inner game” in athletics, competition and self-realization, such as “Downhill Racer,” “The Natural,” “Quiz Show,” “A River Runs Through It” and “The Horse Whisperer.” But while the picture is involving enough on a moment-to-moment basis, it generates no special excitement or feeling, which is partly attributable to the relaxed nature of golf as well as to the simply defined characters. The up-to-now untarnished B.O. record amassed by Will Smith will be scuffed a bit with this DreamWorks/20th Century Fox co-venture, which looks destined for just OK returns domestically and internationally.

Steven Pressfield’s beguiling novel pivots on the curious master-student relationship that develops between Bagger Vance, a deep-thinking guru who imposes himself as a caddie, and Rannulph Junuh, a long-ago rising star of the links who pulls himself out a decade-long bender to take on golf titans Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen in a special match. Alluding to past lives dating back 20,000 years and ever-ready with nuggets of Eastern wisdom that serve to correlate golf and “the game of life,” Vance, in the course of an intensely played 36 holes, guides his protege toward the discovery of his Authentic Swing, the pure and natural expression of any person’s game, personality and soul.

Fortunately, Redford and screenwriter Jeremy Leven (“Don Juan DeMarco”) have lightened the helpings of Vance’s philosophizing, just as they have added a long-standing romance between Junuh and the beautiful society woman who stages the contest. But they have also cut back on one of the book’s primary sources of fascination, its detailing of how the game is played. Even for non-fans, Pressfield’s description of players’ strategic planning, how they size up a hole, assess risks and judge their own abilities, is riveting, much in the manner of accounts of military operations. The camera could easily have capitalized upon this strength, but the competition is shown in a mostly generalized way.

Narrated from the vantage point of many decades by an old man (Jack Lemmon) who suffers a heart attack on a scrubby golf course and remembers back to a resonant event of his youth, story proper is set in the early stage of the Depression. Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron), the golden girl of Savannah, faces a mountain of debts left in the wake of the suicide of her once-wealthy father, who also passed along a fabulous new oceanside golf resort. To put Krewe Island on the map, Adele charms the two leading golfers of the day, Atlanta gent Jones and swaggering Yankee Hagen, into a one-on-one, $10,000 competition, a stunt that local businessmen will only consent to if one of their own is permitted to play as well.

The only conceivable man for the honor is mid-1910s amateur champ Junuh (Matt Damon), who disappeared for a decade from Savannah and the still-bitter Adele’s life after suffering Great War battle trauma and is now a drunken no-account living outside town. With difficulty, he’s persuaded to get a shave and shape up; among the film’s best scenes are one in which Junuh tells the idolatrous, 10-year-old narrator-to-be, Hardy Greaves (a captivating J. Michael Moncrief) how alcohol slowly kills different parts of the brain, and another in which Adele comes to seduce Junuh into participating in the match, with Hardy pretending to sleep across the room. The detailing of some of the early sequences recalls “Quiz Show” in its analytical portraiture of a rarefied strata of American life.

As Junuh shoots practice drives one night, a mysterious figure emerges from the darkness and, after ingratiating himself, starts giving pointers and alluding to the Authentic Swing. Thus does Bagger Vance (Smith) become Junuh’s caddie and unsolicited spiritual guide, with Hardy shortly added as advance caddie.

The two-day match commences nearly an hour into the film, and one is struck at once by the different figures cut by the players then and now. Hagen (Bruce McGill) is a flamboyant dandy, driven to the course in a massive convertible by his swami-like caddie, while Jones (Joel Gretsch) is the picture of a blond god distinguished by an easy-going Old World manner. All three golfers are dressed impeccably in suits and ties, and even the members of the gallery, however dire their financial situations, are decorously accoutered.

After just a few holes, Junuh has fallen embarrassingly behind, and Vance is on his case with all manner of mumbo jumbo about how he has to envision the whole “field,” how the perfect shot will choose him rather than the other way around, how he has to “remember” rather than “learn” the Authentic Swing. As simplistic and satire-inspiring as all this stuff may be, it’s also just as legitimate as equivalent truisms in other sports and in the arts, such as finding le mot juste in writing or Ernst Lubitsch’s insight into cinema that there’s always one perfect place to put the camera. Simply put, those inclined to scoff will find plenty of motivation to do so, but others able to admit the essential truth of cliches will have no trouble sticking with the story.

So far out of it after the first day that he’s given virtually no chance of recovering, Junuh somehow absorbs Vance’s wisdom and stages a miraculous comeback on the third round. Themes of honor, fair play and self-validation are all invoked as the match reaches its final two holes, after which the principals just sort of fade away, except in the mind of old Hardy.

With his quasi-historical/religious/mystical roots minimized and the invented relationship between Junuh and Adele pushed forward, Bagger Vance becomes more of a peripheral figure than he was in the book, indispensable thematically but more obviously a bystander when physicalized as a rather shabbily dressed fellow who mostly hangs around delivering advice while others perform. Role provides Smith with a perfectly sympathetic opportunity for a change of pace, one he handles agreeably while seeming to tax his abilities not in the least.

In a role Redford at one time considered playing himself and for which he then almost used Brad Pitt, Damon adequately essays one of the many flawed Golden Boys who populate the actor-director’s pictures; young star nicely conveys the smart lucidity beneath the hero-gone-south of the early going, but bleaches out somewhat when forced to react vaguely to Vance’s many pronouncements and in comparison to Gretsch’s utterly dazzling Bobby Jones, the real Golden Boy here. Who is this Joel Gretsch, and how could an actor with looks like his not have been discovered by Hollywood before now?

As with Junuh, there isn’t much depth to Theron’s Adele; no clue is offered as to how she dealt with Junuh’s 10-year abandonment of her, aside from her still being livid, and Theron, while looking great, hasn’t entirely nailed her Georgia accent and seems ill at ease at times. McGill is a delight at the swaggering Hagen, while the roles of the sports reporters have been cut down to virtually nothing compared with the book.

Pic is physically immaculate in the manner customary with Redford’s work, with Michael Ballhaus’ lensing giving luster to the evocation of period notably achieved by Stuart Craig’s production design, Judianna Makovsky’s costumes and the Savannah and South Carolina locations. Rachel Portman’s score and numerous vintage tunes blend to good effect.

The Legend of Bagger Vance

  • Production: A DreamWorks Pictures (in U.S.)/20th Century Fox (foreign) release of a DreamWorks Pictures and 20th Century Fox presentation of a Wildwood/Allied production. Produced by Robert Redford, Michael Nozik, Jake Eberts. Executive producer, Karen Tenkhoff. Co-producers, Chris Brigham, Joseph Reidy. Directed by Robert Redford. Screenplay, Jeremy Leven, based on the novel by Steven Pressfield.
  • Crew: Camera (Duart color, Technicolor prints), Michael Ballhaus; editor, Hank Corwin; music, Rachel Portman; music supervisor, John Bissell; production designer, Stuart Craig; supervising art director, W. Steven Graham; art director, Angelo Graham; set designers, Julia Starr Sanford, Thomas Minton, Adam Scher, Jack Ballance, Geoffrey S. Grimsman; set decorators, Michael Seirton, Jim Erickson; costume designer, Judianna Makovsky; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Peter F. Kurland; supervising sound editors, Gary Rydstrom, Richard Hymns; visual effects & animation, Pacific Data Images; visual effects supervisor, Richard Chuang; assistant director, Joseph Reidy; casting, Debra Zane. Reviewed at Todd-AO West, Santa Monica, Oct. 30, 2000. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 127 MIN.
  • With: Bagger Vance - Will Smith Rannulph Junuh - Matt Damon Adele Invergordon - Charlize Theron Walter Hagen - Bruce McGill Bobby Jones - Joel Gretsch Grantland Rice - Lane Smith John Invergordon - Harve Presnell Hardy Greaves - J. Michael Moncrief Neskaloosa - Peter Gerety O.B. Keeler - Michael O'Neill Spec Hammond - Thomas Jay Ryan Old Hardy Greaves/Narrator - Jack Lemmon