'Bagger Vance': Legendary Hokum
By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 3, 2000
When a Hollywood movie title starts with "The Legend of . . ." you can smell the potential trouble already.
Will Smith is the legendary Bagger Vance who assists golfer-in-need Matt Damon.
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
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
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.