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USA 2000
Directed by
Robert Redford
127 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2 stars

Legend of Bagger Vance, The

The best thing one can say about Robert Redford’s coy sport-cum-spiritual allegory movie is that it could have been worse.

The Legend of Bagger Vance tells the story of Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon) a young golfer who was the greatest player in Savannah, Georgia until he went off to World War I. Traumatised by the experience he dropped out of view for ten years which he spent drinking and playing poker. Then a well-to-do former beau, Adele (Charlize Theron), who faces ruin because her father built a luxury golf course then went broke from the Depression and shot himself, asks him to join in a tournament to publicize the resort.

Working from a novel by Steven Pressfield, Redford and his writer, Jeremy Leven turn in a kind of glossy reworking of Frank Capra’s Depression era homily It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) with Junuh who has turned his back on the world finding redemption through the admiration of a small boy (J. Michael Moncrief) and the help of Bagger Vance (Will Smith) a black man who appears out of nowhere and offers to be Junuh’s coach for $5 “guaranteed”.

I imagine there will be golfers who will enjoy this film and its depiction of the game as a kind of spiritual analogue but having no interest in the sport I am definitely not one of them. What is left over is not much except an overly tasteful production design and Michael Ballhaus’s high-tone cinematography.  Charlize Theron’s character initially looks like it will offer a strong role for her but she soon gets marginalized to being the standard romantic complement, the film’s main axis being the relationship between Junuh and Vance. The latter is some kind of visitor from the cosmic beyond with Smith spending the entire film smugly tossing off zen-like observations such as "golf is a game that can't be won, only played". Not only is Smith’s Vance one of the most annoying characters ever to grace the big screen but it seems odd that in 1930s Georgia no-one would at least comment on the presence of an uppity neegra, particularly considering that the setting is an exclusive club for the most paradigmatically white middle class game there is.

The boyishly charming Damon is woefully miscast, not only seeming too young for the part but more importantly having no ability to suggest inner turmoil or even manage a connection with as-ever sassy Theron who is supposed to be a former lover. J. Michael Moncrief who plays the squeaky voiced golf-obsessed young boy from whose perspective we are seeing events (his modern day senior citizen self who narrates the story is payed by Jack Lemmon) is O.K. as movie kids go (the film remains his sole screen appearance) but his presence is just another factor which keeps this film firmly in the realm of sentimentality (and Rachel Portman’s music is yet another). Fortunately Redford exercises some restraint in this department but only just.




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