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'Bagger Vance': A Game Full of Holes

By Rita Kempley
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)
"The Legend of Bagger Vance" takes place in Savannah, Ga., during the Great Depression, but nobody connected with this sap-oozing fantasy seems to have taken the time or the place into consideration. Although the title character is a shuffling black golf caddie, director Robert Redford plays possum when it comes to racism and pays short shrift to those hardest hit by the nation's worst financial crisis.

Redford's Savannah is a racially harmonious community whose citizens rally around a beautiful belle to save the local golf resort from financial ruin. It makes a body misty-eyed just thinking about folks of all colors 'n' creeds coming to the rescue of what had to have been a whites-only country club.

Like Steven Pressfield's popular novel, this adaptation centers on the relationship between Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), a traumatized World War I veteran who has lost his golf swing, and Bagger (Will Smith), the Heaven-sent golf angel who saves Junuh's soul while curing his slice. (The preposterous plot mirrors Redford's redemptive journey in "The Natural" and shares that baseball movie's Zenlike reverence for sports.)

Life, we discover, is like a box of golf balls. Sometimes you find the fairway, sometimes you land in the rough. "Mister Junuh" not only winds up in the tall grass, he has a bad lie. But all he's got to do, according to the mystical-minded Bagger, is make that first swing.

Once a promising young athlete, Junuh hasn't picked up a club since before he went to war when he is coerced into playing an exhibition alongside golfing legends Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill). Though loath to play, Junuh slips out that night and takes a few practice swings.

He's hacking away when Bagger walks out of the mist and into the light of Junuh's lantern and begins settin' things to rights. Bagger's method has nothing to do with correcting Junuh's grip or stance but rather with putting him in touch with his inner golfer. You can't force the ball to go into the hole, you have to "feel the ball," advises Bagger, seemingly drawing inspiration from the "be-the-ball" mantra espoused by Chevy Chase in the far superior "Caddyshack."

Bagger just can't stop preaching the gospel of golf. "Inside each and every one of us is our one true, authentic swing," the caddie intones. "Something we was born with. Something that can't be learned. Something that's got to be remembered." If Junuh is to recover his, he must overcome the inner demons that have plagued him since the war.

Unfortunately, the audience never comprehends his anguish, which doesn't seem to matter much to the makers of the film. Junuh's trial in the trenches, the death of all his battlefield comrades and his subsequent boozy decline are dramatized with all the emotion of a bank statement. Redford acts as if these events were no more tragic than a playground boo-boo. It's hardly the way to reintroduce the movie's hero, who is first seen flirting the night away with his aristocratic then-fiancee, Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron).

Adele, a standard-issue iron magnolia, organizes the match to save the golf course, which was built by her late father. (Folks are digging into their empty pockets for ticket money.) She and Junuh haven't seen each other for years, but they're thrown together again when he agrees to participate. Though the pair feign indifference, there is little doubt about the outcome of their relationship. And the same goes for the tournament.

"The Legend of Bagger Vance" is a slight, disingenuous script that robs the characters of their histories, deprives the actors of subtext and minimizes the odds each must overcome. Damon, Theron and Smith, all of them gifted and gorgeous, are easy to like. But there's no getting around Damon's girly golf swing or the degrading aspects of Smith's role. Though the part does provide a change of pace and Smith handles it with charm and ease, isn't it time to put Stepin Fetchit to rest?

"The Legend of Bagger Vance" (127 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some sexual content.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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