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'Bagger Vance': Legendary Hokum

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 3, 2000

   


    'The Legend of Bagger Vance' Will Smith is the legendary Bagger Vance who assists golfer-in-need Matt Damon. (David James/DreamWorks)
When a Hollywood movie title starts with "The Legend of . . ." you can smell the potential trouble already.

It amounts to a club-fisted heads-up for the audience. Attention everyone: This is a legend movie. There will be magic in the movie. After you have experienced the wonder, please proceed slowly to the nearest exit.

We're talking about "The Legend of Bagger Vance," a by-the-numbers fantasy, which stars Will Smith and Matt Damon – in order of money-earning power and appeal.

As directed by Robert Redford, this saved-by-an-angel story is redeemed mostly by Smith's comic instincts. There aren't too many of these funny moments, so keep your eyes and ears at the ready. As Bagger, the mysterious (and, of course, legendary) caddie-cum-Yoda, he chips away comically at the tightly wound personality of Damon's character, dispensing subtle advice that eventually sinks in.

Damon plays Rannulph Junuh, a golfing genius from Savannah, Ga., who leaves for World War I military duty as the region's greatest golfer and First Boyfriend (he's dating Adele Invergordon, the town's wealthiest heiress, played by Charlize Theron) and returns as a shattered nobody. (In the movies, as we all know, everyone who goes to war comes back emotionally destroyed.)

Retreating into the swampy shadows of Savannah, reduced to drinking himself stupid and playing poker, he's a living corpse. That is, until a huge golf tournament with a $10,000 purse, featuring two of the biggest golfers in the game, lures him back into the redemptive limelight.

There are other factors influencing his comeback: the prospect of falling back in love with Adele, the wide-eyed hope of a preteen fan named Hardy (J. Michael Moncrief) and the caddying services of one Bagger Vance, a serene vagabond who insists on the unprincely sum of $5.

With Bagger's unobtrusive assistance, Junuh slowly works himself back into his game. The problem, according to Bagger: Junuh has lost his "authentic swing."

Frankly, that could have been the diagnosis for this movie, which is narrated with formulaic hokeyness by Jack Lemmon – who plays the older Hardy looking back on this hallowed time. Director Redford, who has yet to return to the high-water mark of "Quiz Show," is so fixated on making an official Hollywood myth, he forgets to exercise an authentic stroke of his own.

The movie (which clocks in at more than two hours) moves like, well, a long golf game. And it's practically sand-trapped with Hollywood clichés, from the period settings to cinematographer Michael Ballhaus's soft-focus, iconographic shots of Bagger's silhouette against the Savannah landscape. No one sounds as though they really come from Savannah, either. The only actor with an accent that even belongs south of the Mason-Dixon line is newcomer Moncrief, a charming tyke who makes the most of his scenes.

Smith's loose attitude – at odds with the formulaic strictures of this movie – is the only enjoyable element. At one point, in mid-tournament, Junuh looks up at his caddie, waiting for advice about which club to use.

"Any ideas?" asks Junuh.

"Hmmm? About what?" stammers Bagger, who seems oblivious. Exasperated, Junuh selects a club himself.

"Yeah, that's a good one there," says Bagger. Well, it may not sound like much. But in this context, it's very funny. And in a movie as stultifying as this, you're desperate for any comic relief.

"The Legend of Bagger Vance" (PG-13, 127 minutes) – Contains nothing offensive or extraordinary.

 

Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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