The Legend Of Bagger Vance
In The Legend Of Bagger Vance, a Robert Redford-directed adaptation of Steven Pressfield's best-selling Bhagavad Gita-inspired novel, Matt Damon plays a one-time golf champ, the golden-boy hero of Savannah, Georgia, whose WWI experiences have left him a specter of his former self. Ten years after leaving the military, he spends his time drinking as often as possible while trying to forget the past. He is, in short, a man in need of redemption, or at least a redemptive sports-as-metaphor-for-life movie, and he finds the opportunity for both when financially strapped ex-lover Charlize Theron organizes a golf tournament with stakes considerably higher than the $10,000 purse. Though his initial attempts seem hopeless, Damon discovers untapped potential under the guidance of an easygoing passerby (Will Smith) who offers sage, symbolic advice about the game. In a lesser film, Smith's suggestion that Damon "find his swing" would seem about as appealing as Patricia Wettig's demand that Billy Crystal "find his smile" in City Slickers. But Redford has developed into a director of such understated skill that he makes some mighty suspect material work beyond expectations—even those it creates for itself with an iffy first act. Bagger Vance lays on the Southern quirkiness fast and thick in its opening scenes and raises even more questions by telling its story in flashback from the perspective of an impressionable, golf-loving boy (played as an adult and in voiceover by an uncredited Jack Lemmon). It doesn't help that Smith at first speaks almost entirely in Gumpisms such as, "A man's grip on his club is like his grip on his life." But a funny shift occurs about a third of the way in: The film discovers quietness. In A River Runs Through It and The Horse Whisperer, Redford has concentrated—sometimes fuzzily, sometimes effectively—on portraying the redemptive power of nature and the simple spirituality of the land. Once he finds a way to do the same in Bagger Vance, it improves immeasurably. Smith essentially plays a supernatural version of the virtuous natural man Redford played so well in Whisperer, and he, like the rest of the cast, does well by the character. The controversy over racial stereotyping Bagger Vance has created (an unnecessary controversy that might be interpreted as misplaced regret for all those glowing Green Mile reviews) doesn't hold up in light of the performance itself, which relies heavily on an unspoken superiority, not inferiority. In fact, the casting could easily have been colorblind, though it does have an odd side effect: Redford's portrayal of a pre-Civil Rights South barely touched by racial inequity seems at times like a film about Pompeii with no mention of a volcano. It's a kind of fairy-tale South for what is in many ways a grown-up fairy tale, and it relies heavily on Redford's ability and Michael Ballhaus' masterful cinematography to make it look lovely in spite of what we know. Bagger Vance sheds its slightness early on, using thin profundities as guideposts rather than destinations and revealing itself as a moving story of one man's struggle against a game, his past, and his willingness to surrender to both.