Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Robert Redford
Stars: Matt Damon, Will Smith, Charlize Theron
It was Mark Twain who once said that golf was a good walk spoiled by having to hit a little white ball. Cinematically, golf is hardly an exciting sport, although occasionally it has worked, especially in films like Happy Gilmore, and even to a lesser extent, Ron Shelton’s Tin Cup. In his latest life affirming tale, director Robert Redford uses golf as a metaphor for life (much as he tried to do with fly fishing in the visually lush A River Runs Through It). The Legend Of Bagger Vance carries an optimistic and positive message about overcoming adversity and fear and getting on with life, making the most of your natural talents.
The film is set in Savannah during the depression years, a period in which America has lost a promising young generation in the Great War and witnessed the devastation of many hopes and dreams with the financial collapse of Wall Street. A local entrepreneur spends a fortune on a luxury golf resort, before the depression turns his investment into a white elephant and he commits suicide to avoid the mounting debts. Desperate to stave off the banks, his daughter Adele (Charlize Theron) proposes a challenge match between Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, the two best golfers of the day. Local businesses will only support her scheme if one of Savannah’s local golfers participates.
The best golfer around is Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), but unfortunately he hasn’t touched a golf club for several years. Junuh returned from the war an embittered and moody young man, whose principal interests now seem to be gambling, drinking, and escaping his personal demons. Junuh receives help from Bagger Vance (Will Smith), an enigmatic drifter who appears out of nowhere one night and offers his services for a guaranteed fee of five dollars. Vance has an unusual caddying style, and offers mysterious philosophical advice that eventually helps Junuh rediscover his passion for the game, and, ultimately, life itself.
This theme of the underdog triumphing against the odds is common in many of Redford’s films as a director, although here his handling of the material seems lacklustre and often lacks assurance or clarity. The golf sequences seem clumsy and contrived, and Rachel Portman’s schmaltzy orchestral score every time Junuh hits a winning drive becomes a little overbearing and obviously manipulative.
Damon is wonderful in a complex role that offers a greater emotional range than many of his roles, and he is quite good. Smith does what he can with an under developed and one-dimensional role as the moral conscience of the film. The rivalry between the flamboyant Hagen (Bruce McGill) and naturally talented Jones (Joel Gretsch) brings some humour to the film. This quirky tale is narrated by an uncredited Jack Lemmon, who lends a touch of authority to proceedings.