The Legend of Bagger Vance (review)

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On the Green

Robert Redford has made some very pretty movies of late — A River Runs Through It, The Horse Whisperer — beautifully shot, glowingly golden films that embody an elemental optimism about America and Americans, one that extends beyond the immediate characters and story, one that isn’t seen much on film of late. And optimism, especially so sweeping an optimism, no matter how handsomely portrayed, can provoke a knee-jerk negative reaction in intellectual cynics — like, well, yours truly — simply out of sheer cussedness. Surely all the problems of the world cannot be solved by merely getting off our duffs and quitting feeling so sorry for ourselves?

Under the tough exterior of every cynic, though, is a disappointed and disillusioned former optimist, and we’re usually secretly happy to have a chance to remember how good optimism feels. The Legend of Bagger Vance is Redford’s latest attempt to break through the crust of the most hard-hearted cynic and warm her insides — and as that very person, I can attest that he succeeds. Redford pulls the emotional strings of a story oft-told so sublimely that I went along with him willingly, grateful with the opportunity to get swept away in it and for a little cry at the end.
The Great Depression has just struck Savannah, Georgia. Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon: The Talented Mr. Ripley, Dogma; like Brad Pitt in River, another reincarnation, at least in this outing, of the young Redford) is sitting on his duff feeling sorry for himself — a former golf champ in the teens, he had a bad war in the Great one and is now drinking himself and his memories into oblivion. Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron: Reindeer Games, The Cider House Rules) is sitting on her duff feeling sorry for herself — her father, now dead, lumbered her with a brand-new golf resort at precisely the moment when no one would have the money or the interest in such luxuries. Young Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief, a wonderful discovery) is sitting on his duff feeling sorry for himself — much to his adolescent embarrassment, his father, formerly a respected shopkeeper, is reduced to sweeping the streets, right out in the open where Hardy’s friends can see, in order to support his family.

Adele is the character Theron was born to play: a sweet manipulator with a backbone of steel, a glamour-puss Southern belle who’s tough as nails. And her plan to stave off her creditors is the one that will save them all from themselves in the end: She will sponsor an exhibition golf match between pros Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill: Running Mates, The Insider) and Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) that will raise awareness of her resort and lure in the few people who do still have money to burn. The bombastic town elders want a local Savannahan to play as well, and Hardy — who, with boyish hero worship, sees Junuh as a “born winner” — volunteers Junuh’s participation in the game, even though he hasn’t played in years.

Bagger Vance is like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, with the warm, vibrant, happy colors and simple but assured brushstrokes that allow some to mistake hopefulness and sincerity for insipidness. The ideals Bagger Vance evinces are the values ascribed to Rockwell’s America: civic pride, especially in tough times; appreciation and welcome of a challenge (Hardy loves golf because “it’s fun and it’s hard”); and a diffuse, nondenominational (nearly nonreligious) spirituality, embodied by Bagger Vance (Will Smith: Wild Wild West, Enemy of the State, as compulsively watchable as ever) himself, the philosophical caddy who mysteriously appears to help Junuh “find his swing.”

Like most movies about sports, Bagger Vance isn’t about golf but about life: about destiny, redemption, finding our true selves, and the twists of fate that alter the course of lives. “The rhythm of the game is just like the rhythm of life,” says Bagger, who describes the game as one that “can’t be won, only played.” But instead of coming off as Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul, Bagger Vance is more like a magic-realism golf pastoral, a stunningly lovely film with few faults.

Like Rockwell’s paintings, Bagger Vance suffers, just a bit, from stock characters that straddle the line between stereotype and archetype. Hagen, a blowhard and a cynic, is the scowling figure at the edge of a Rockwell piece, threatening to ruin the cheery brightness. Jones is the gentleman scholar/athlete, and handsome to boot, a man so apparently perfect that he’s hard to swallow. Hagen and Jones are meant to represent the extremes between which the rejuvenated Junuh must locate himself, and that is ultimately their saving grace… as well as the flawless performances from McGill and Gretsch.

Is Bagger Vance a hole in one? No. But it does get on the green beautifully.

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