**1/2 Stars
(US 2000)


Starring:
Matt Damon, Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Michael J. Moncrief, Bruce McGill

Directed by Robert Redford

Writing credits: Stephen Pressfield (novel), Jeremy Leven

Dreamworks * 125 minutes

Screened at: Pascack Theatre, Westwood, NJ


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.

Hilary Swank 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 more.

Charlize 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.

Chiseled 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.

As 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.

Whatever the 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 once was.

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.

Cranky 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.



THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE
 official site

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