The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)
Directed by Robert Redford
Cast: Matt Damon, Charlize Theron, Will Smith, J. Michael Moncrief, Joel Gretsch, Bruce McGill, Jack Lemmon.
2000 127 minutes
Rated: (for sexual situations, mild war violence, and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 4, 2000.
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.
©2000 by Dustin Putman