THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE, which could
just have easily been called FAIRWAY OF DREAMS, or A NINE-IRON RUNS THROUGH
IT, attempts to give the game of golf the same kind of poetry that we
all know belongs only to baseball. Chockablock with New-Age Iron John
Hallmark-by-way-of-Oprah Zen-isms like "Somewhere in the harmony of all
that was...all that is...and all that will be....is that one perfect swing.
You just have to find it," BAGGER VANCE attempts to find metaphysical
profundity in a historically racist, elitist game that involves hitting
a ball and then chasing it.
lookalike Matt Damon is Rannalph Junuh, obviously named by a mother enamored
by the vocal stylings of some Jazz Age Strom Thurmond. Junuh, a once-promising
young golfer, goes off to a brief, allegedly brutal WWI scene that could
be titled "Saving Private Junuh," in which he, inevitably, because he's
Matt Damon, is the only survivor. Emotionally broken, he eschews his hero's
return, insanely abandoning his ladylove, the luscious and wealthy Adele
Invergordon (Charlize Theron). He decides instead to camp out on the outskirts
of Savannah, in Brad Pitt's old house from INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE,
which lies somewhere at the end of a kudzu-strewn woods, probably just
down the road from Erykah Badu's digs in BLUES BROTHERS 2000. There, he
wastes his days and nights drinking whisky, playing cards with elderly
African-American gentlemen, and trying valiantly to grow some cheek stubble.
Meanwhile, the plucky Adele decides that
the way to keep her deceased father's dream of owning the best golf resort
in the south alive (despite the Great Depression) and out of the hands
of the various Boss Hoggs determined to wrest it from her control, is
to host a golf tournament, in which the two best golfers of the era, golden
boy Bobby Jones (no, not the Mets starting pitcher) and womanizing wastrel,
Walter Hagen face off against a local golfer yet to be determined. Enter
young Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief, in a delightful debut right
out of a Frank Capra flick), who pipes up that his hero Junnuh is just
the guy to participate. Hardy, who would probably be appalled to know
that he grows old and turns into Jack Lemmon sounding like the "Pepperidge
Farm Remembers" guy, is the OTHER Zen master in the film, playing an unlikely
James Earl Jones spouting the virtues of golf to Junuh's Ray Kinsella.
There's only one problem: Junnuh not only has to be convinced to participate,
but has also "lost his swing." As if from Redneck Heaven, Will Smith,
channeling every shuffling and jiving obsequious black character from
the time in which this movie is set, emerges literally from the mist as
Junnuh's own personal Yoda, one named "Bagger Vance, suh," spouting Zen
wisdom and helping Junnuh get his swing back so he can win the tournament
and the girl. And all Bagger wants is "five dollahs, guaranteed." After
an hour of this, punctuated by more of that annoying narration which seems
to appear too often in movies too lazy to set up a plot, the film finally
gets into the golf match, which is surprisingly interesting, and even
a bit suspenseful.
Matt Damon has proven that he can sell movie tickets, and is an adequate
actor, but with Junnuh looking not much older than young Hardy, it's hard
to imagine this baby-faced kid with the big teeth as a war-scarred veteran.
Damon looks jarringly contemporary, even in the meticulously-done shots
in which his face is grafted onto vintage sepia photographs. Add to this
his nonexistent chemistry with Theron, and he's adequate, but nothing
Theron, an actress so gorgeous that we merely mortal women would be perfectly
within our rights to despise, is sensational. This is perhaps the most
perfect-looking woman God ever made, and is emerging as a fine actress
in the bargain. She has already shown in THE CIDER HOUSE RULES that she's
able to carry off vintage clothing and makeup, and here, in the cloche
hats and bias-cut chiffon of the post-Crash South, and her plucked eyebrows,
she looks amazingly like Jean Harlow. Her Adele Invergordon is gorgeous,
sassy, aware of how to use her own sexual allure without once losing control.
She's a perfect Southern Iron Butterfly, which is no small feat for a
girl who's only Southern heritage is in South Africa.
soap opera refugee Joel Gretsch gives a nice performance is the improbably
perfect Bobby Jones, and perhaps THIS is the real Redford role. As a top
golfer who's also a prominent attorney, Jones ought to be insufferable,
but Gretch makes him a nuanced, human character. As Walter Hagen, well,
it's always a treat to see the hammy Bruce McGill (D-Day from ANIMAL HOUSE).
Hagen is a man who practices putting into cleavage, smokes cigarettes
during his swing, and shows a sensibility about golf that you sense would
have made him a good pro wrestling promoter.
for Will Smith, well, all I can say, is: What was this man thinking?
If Bagger Vance is the best "serious role" Smith could come up with in
an effort to garner an Academy Award nomination, then Hollywood still
has a long way to go in accepting even genial, nonthreatening black actors.
Bagger Vance is the wise servant. He's Rochester to Damon's Jack Benny,
and if he gets all the good lines, it doesn't compensate for the fact
that his character seems blissfully ignorant of the fact that he knows
more about golf than the golden boys, but would not be permitted to play
at their golf courses. Indeed, the sun-dappled benevolent treatment of
the racial issue is the second such glossing over this year, and just
as egregious as Mel Gibson's well-paid fieldhands in THE PATRIOT. Smith
is a hugely talented and charsimatic actor, as we saw early on in SIX
DEGREES OF SEPARATION, and there is absolutely no reason why he should
have to resort to roles like this in order to gain credibility.
weaknesses of THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE, there is no arguing with Redford's
ability to put together a smashingly beautiful production. He shoots a
golf course as if it were a spectacular natural resource. His meticulously
re-created 1930's Savannah is perfect right down to the last hammer in
the hardware store. Judianna Makovsky's costumes remind us of what fashion
Redford has worked as an actor in some of the most cinematographically
gorgeous films of the last 30 years -- THE NATURAL, THE GREAT GATSBY,
THE STING...and it's clear that he wasn't just involved in the front end
of the camera. To watch BAGGER VANCE is to watch a lifetime watching the
production end of the business bear fruit. However, Redford doesn't know
when to quit. A Very Cool shot that appears to be done with "golfball-cam"
is a thrill ride the first time, a cliche the second. A scene in which
young Hardy hands Junuh a golf club feels lifted right from the "Wonderboy
Bat Scene" in THE NATURAL.
Critic Chuck Schwartz referred last year to EYES WIDE SHUT as "a highly
polished turd." While this is perhaps a bit harsh a judgment to apply
to THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE, it certainly is a highly polished apple
with a very empty core.
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