The Legend of Bagger Vance Movie Review
The story opens in the present with an aged Hardy Greaves (Jack Lemmon) suffering a heart attack on a golf course. As he lies quietly smiling to himself, he muses on the frequency of his cardiovascular failures and his love of the game of golf, which meanders into a quixotic narration on the career of Rannulph Junuh (Damon). Soon the narrative fades to the past and we see Junuh at the height of his career, in the company of the enchanting Adele Invergordon (played by Charlize Theron of The Devil's Advocate fame; who, by the way, happens to represent the purest embodiment of good, wholesome sex that the film industry has to offer).
Junuh is the greatest golfer in Savannah, Georgia, Miss Invergordon is his true love, and they are about as privileged as anyone in the South until Junuh ships off to serve his country in World War I, whereupon his entire platoon is slaughtered in the grand history of Saving Private Ryan. Returning home he finds himself a mere shell of his former self and--tragedy of tragedies--he has lost his golf swing. This is about the dumbest point in the entire film, the point at which I nearly wrote the whole thing off. There is absolutely nothing convincing about Junuh's wartime horrors. Damon's portrayal of shock at the sight of his slain comrades is not unlike his appearance of dismay at losing his MIT girlfriend in Good Will Hunting. Fortunately, like any good professional, I persevered.
Skipping ahead a few years, to the Great Depression, Miss Invergordon has inherited her father's golf course and, determined to fend off bankruptcy, throws a high profile golf tournament. How exactly this is going to work is not quite explained and, presumably, no one in town can afford to pay admission, and she's giving away ten grand to the winner, but anyway.... The two greatest golfers of the day are coming to play and Savannah will be represented by none other than the washed up and unshaven Rannulph Junuh.
Enter Bagger Vance. Will Smith is predictably likable and witty as the colloquially wise vagabond shaman who saves the day--and the story--from otherwise certain grief. The Bagger Vance character is not a new archetype for Hollywood, but Smith's delivery of Vance's black Southern dialect manages to convey an element often missed in such film portrayals. Where other stereotyped victims of segregation appear merely ignorant or uneducated, we find a wit and, more importantly, a will in Bagger's voice. It's a subversion of language intrinsic to African American culture, born of wisdom and cunning in the face of adversity. Will Smith's ability to carry this to the surface lends wondrously to our imagination of his character, and forges a heightened standard for future actors. Something in Smith's delivery is so conducive to the suspension of disbelief as to render all things permissible, and it took only a few scenes to reel this critic in.
In the end, Bagger Vance is a strong, memorable film, filled with rich dialogue and vital camera work. Though Redford seems to have fallen back too heavily upon his overused and rambling A River Runs Through It narrative style, the strength of the underlying story carries it off. Better directorial focus might have made for a hole-in-one, but as it stands, this movie's a solid birdie.
(left to right) Smith, golf club, Damon.