LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE, THEPG-13
There's no denying that, as a director, Robert Redford holds to a strong personal vision. He's attracted to stories that are character-driven, as opposed to action-propelled, with characters who invariably face some sort of great adversity and grandly triumph over it. Emotionally, Redford goes for the spiritual uplift, and visually, his films really do emanate a golden glow. Also, more likely than not, the hero of a Redford film is played by a 'golden boy,' an actor who physically resembles Redford himself as he was, say, 30 years ago: Brad Pitt, Matt Damon-guys like that.
Seen in these terms, The Legend of Bagger Vance is the quintessential Robert Redford movie. That said, is it a good movie? Well, for viewers melancholic for some spiritually uplifting winds under their wings, the answer is yes, Bagger Vance works. Granted, it's predictable and manipulative, but even the most hardened cynic might feel a bit floaty inside at the moment when the aforementioned Matt Damon, playing a psychologically scarred former golf champion, finally comes out of his deep funk to gloriously rediscover his 'authentic swing.'
Bagger Vance is billed as a story about 'golf and the game of life.' Based on a successful novel of the same name, it's specifically about Rannulph Junuh, a golf prodigy who had gone off to fight in World War I and returned 'in shock and sorrow' to his hometown, Savannah, to become a virtual recluse-abandoning not only golf, but also his lovely, longtime sweetheart, Adele (Charlize Theron). All of this quickly-dispensed-with plot exposition is narrated in flashback by an old man, Hardy Greaves (an uncredited Jack Lemmon), who says he was only ten when he got to know his fallen hero, Captain Junuh.
The ten-year-old Hardy (J. Michael Moncrief) then takes over the story. He leisurely tells (and we see) how the Great Depression ruined the life of, among others, Adele's father, who had put everything he had into building a posh golf resort and who, facing financial ruin, blows his brains out. Barely deterred, Adele decides to fight to save her father's dream by organizing the 'greatest ever' exhibition match between the two top golfers of the era-Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen (Joel Gretsch and Bruce McGill, wonderfully suited to their parts). But in this historic match, is there anyone who will represent Savannah? Wistful young Hardy, lovesick Adele and the town's blustery mayor all visit the alcoholic Junuh, who's wasting away in his decrepit lair, to implore him to take up his golf clubs and recapture his self-pride-as well as the pride of the Deep South.
Junuh cynically rejects them all. But one night, he finds his old golf bag and goes out back to hit a few balls. Suddenly, out of the dark, comes a figure, an engaging stranger who says his name is Bagger Vance (Will Smith) and announces he wants to study Junuh's golf swing. At this point, as corny as it sounds, Junuh-and the movie-begin to come to life.
Bagger is a mythic character, of course, a veritible guardian angel who also turns out to be, as Junuh says later, 'one hell of a caddy.' In time, he helps the former golf champion recapture his 'authentic swing-the one you were born with, the one that's yours alone.' Smith nicely contains his impish nature in the delicate way he dazzles Damon's character by imparting the techniques for entering a mental state which athletes today call 'the flow.' A remarkably powerful moment comes when Junuh, urged to focus on the intensity with which the great Bobby Jones hits a golf ball, suddenly finds his own focus-understanding what Bagger means when he talks of becoming 'one' with the field and the ball.
The message in Bagger Vance-the importance of finding one's 'authentic' self-could have been delivered with a much heavier hand. But, thankfully, director/producer Redford lets us know he doesn't take all of this moralizing, or himself, too seriously. For example, he never allows the golden look of the film to become too brassy. The mushy script is also nicely leavened with flashes of wry humor which are well-handled by the wisely chosen cast-Smith, Damon and Theron, who happen to be among the hottest, most attractive and talented actors around these days. Listen, if Robert Redford doesn't know how to make an effective feel-good movie, then who does?