Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:07 - Released 11/3/00

The word "legend" in the title of The Legend Of Bagger Vance suggests mythical implications. This seems increasingly typical of director Robert Redford, whose films have often attempted to affix undue significance to subjects like . . . sports. Just look at his directing career so far: of his 6 films, 3 of them have been sports fairy tales. Before this reverential opus on the spiritual implications of golf, Redford helmed A River Runs Through It (fly-fishing) and The Horse Whisperer (equestrian), and if you count films he's starred in, you can include The Natural (baseball), The Electric Horseman (rodeo), and The Great Waldo Pepper (stunt flying). This guy is second only to Kevin Costner in his fixation on athletic mythology.

I don't know how successful Steven Pressfield's novel is at conveying the importance of a down-and-out golfer who finds his game with the help of a supernatural caddy, but Jeremy Leven's screenplay and Redford's direction failed to convince me. The movie does contain some heartfelt performances, especially by Will Smith as the titular Bagger, and tons of Redford's trademark scenery. But beautiful sunsets and fog-filled glens, and even good acting, can't make this film as important as it wants to be.

The story, which takes place in the early 1930s, involves a young golfer from Savannah, Ga., named Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), the winner of the 1916 Georgia Open who faded into anonymity after suffering a horrifying experience in World War I. Following his return home from Europe, Junuh abandoned not only his golf career, but also his pre-war lover, the wealthy Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron). Ten years later, when the Depression hits, the suicide of Adele's father (and her inheritance of his huge outstanding debt) forces her to host a golf tournament at his newly completed resort in order to raise money. Inviting the nation's two top golf stars, Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill), Adele promises a $10,000 purse to the winner, but her local investors insist that Savannah be represented in the match, and so an effort is made to convince Junuh to participate.

While he is practicing drives at night, a stranger appears out of the darkness named Bagger Vance (Smith), who promptly begins making snide comments about Junuh's swing and offering sage advice on how to improve it. Surprisingly not kicking this sarcastic stranger off his property, Junuh hires Bagger as his caddy. The rest of the film follows the two-day, 72-hole tournament, with Junuh attempting to compete against the two reigning kings of the sport as well as exorcise his own personal demons, Bagger offering everything from snide comments to sage advice, and a starstruck boy named Hardy Greaves (newcomer J. Michael Moncrief) following along in hushed wonderment.

With all its romantic visuals, sweeping music, and grand trappings of the period, not to mention that it is narrated by Jack Lemmon (as the elderly Hardy Greaves), The Legend Of Bagger Vance seems like a vastly significant story. But it isn't. All the way through the film, I couldn't help thinking, what's the big deal? It's just golf, folks. Redford actually overuses the scenic element, if that's possible, as if throwing in a picture postcard every 5 minutes will compensate for the lack of meaning in the plot. Damon and Theron spend most of the film at odds; their chemistry doesn't exactly sparkle, and young Moncrief is adequate but not outstanding. Smith is warm and personable; his character is in a way more sympathetic than Damon's, which should really not be the case. Damon, who has mused on the pressure of playing a role Redford himself had originally planned to play, does as good a job as is called for, but the script just doesn't hold up to Redford's overindulgent directing style. Moreover, since most of the film takes place during one two-day tournament, the requisite ups and downs that are inherent in any sports movie must be compressed accordingly. On this hole Junuh's behind, on that hole he's ahead, here he bogies, now he birdies . . . it's not unlike watching golf on TV, except everyone's in period dress.

With its release being timed as it is, I'm sure Bagger's producers (of which Redford is one) will be hoping for Oscar nominations. While it may be picked for costumes or cinematography, I can't imagine it getting a best picture nod without something more to say. ***½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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