|Legend of Bagger Vance, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 03 April 2001|
Wealthy people like, oh, say, Robert Redford don't seem to understand a basic precept of sports-as-metaphor-for-life, at least in terms of movies. Any sport that requires a great deal of very expensive equipment to play, such as skiing, SCUBA diving or golf, is not going to be very convincing as such a metaphor, because the public, for the most part, rarely plays such sports. Rich people do. (Yes, I know there are exceptions.) A stand-in for life needs to be something anyone can relate to, and something to which they formed an attachment since childhood. Basketball requires (a) a basket and (b) a ball; baseball requires (a) a bat and (b) a ball; football requires (a) a ball. (Soccer is much the same.) Almost any kid can meet these minimal requirements, and many do, so these sports seep into people's souls.
On this attractive DVD of 'The Legend of Bagger Vance,' there's a brief featurette consisting of stills from the film, including behind-the-scenes shots, in which director Redford tries, very vaguely, to explain what drew him to film Steven Pressfield's novel. There's stuff about mystical experiences, how in golf you play only against yourself (tell THAT to the next foursome to tee off), a little of how he approached the subject, and so forth. At no time does he really discuss the novel, the changes that were made (there is no love interest in the novel), or the relationship of the story to 'The Bhagavad-Gita,' Pressfield's source for his story (and some of the character names). It's all generalities. When he gets specific, Redford stumbles, too; he talks about how in playing golf, you're out there in nature. A golf course is about as natural as an aluminum Christmas tree. Fields and hills are ploughed, battered and rolled into gentle slopes; tons of fertilizer -- dangerous to fish when it washes into the water -- are required for the perfect greens. Tons of water keep the grass so green. Golf courses are pretty, but they're absolutely not part of nature.
So coming back to the movie... it's extremely well-made and well-cast. It's a fable, and the people (and the golf course) look fabulous. Michael Ballhaus' cinematography is elegant and beautiful; Judianna Makovsky's costumes are striking and authentic-looking (the setting is 1930). Mostly, the acting is very good, the sound excellent, particularly in the disc's DTS presentation. All in all, it's as good-looking and good-sounding a movie as you could want.
The trouble lies elsewhere. If you have no problems with golf as a metaphor for life, with mystical caddies whose instructions are couched in terms so vague they could be describing any activity (or none), that to succeed all you have to do is "authentically" try, then you could very well love 'The Legend of Bagger Vance.' The rest of us are not likely to have that reaction.
Just before World War I, Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon) was the idol of Savannah, GA, potentially the world's greatest golfer. (The movie never makes clear that this all takes place before the advent of professional golfing; all golfers were "amateurs.") But terrible experiences during the war broke Junuh's spirit, and for ten years, he's been somewhere between a recluse and a drunken gambler. He's abandoned his gorgeous fiancée Adele Ivergordon and his once-lively social life.
Adele's father builds a grand golf resort, but then the Depression hits, he loses everything, and kills himself. Creditors threaten to gobble up what little Adele has left, so in an effort to realize her father's dream, she announces a tournament, a match between Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill), the two most famous golfers of the day.
And they really were. Hagen was actually the first who could be considered a professional golfer; Jones, still regarded as possibly the greatest player of all, was still an amateur when he retired in 1930, not yet 30. Real-life sports writer Grantland Rice (Lane Smith) is also a character, but hardly used.
Young Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief), a kid who loves golf -- ever met one? -- and idolizes Junuh, convinces him to enter the match as the representative of Savannah. Junuh claims he "lost" his swing, but decides to practice anyway. Out of the velvety darkness of the Georgia night comes magical Negro Bagger Vance (Will Smith), who talks in philosophical generalities that really seem to mean something to Junuh in terms of regaining his abilities as a golfer. It's hard to see how.
"I allus felt a man's grip on his club just like a man's grip on the world," says Bagger. "Yeah, rhythm of the game just like the rhythm of life," he adds. "Somewhere in the harmony of all that was, all that is, all that will be...." "Inside each and everyone one of us is a one true authentic swing, somethin' we were born with, somethin' that's ours and ours alone...." And on and on and on.
This is the kind of conceit that can work, and work well, in a novel, but it's extremely hard to make it work in a movie -- and Redford isn't up to the task. Nor is Will Smith. To seem transcendental and philosophical, Smith smiles knowingly and gently, and speaks softly. He hits a golf ball once. It's okay that we don't know anything about his past (but NOT that we know so little about Junuh's past), since he's possibly a fantasy figure in the first place. But Smith plays Bagger so wispily that he seems incomplete, and that pretentious dialog seems laughable. Redford works very hard, with overlapping sound, rack focus shots and intense closeups, to make us believe that there is a way to translate this blather into something as real and specific as hitting a golf ball with a club, but he just cannot do it.
He was actually IN a movie, 'The Natural,' in which this kind of thing worked pretty well, and the tone of 'Bagger Vance' suggests that he consulted 'Field of Dreams,' too. He did reasonably well with magic realism as a director in 'The Milagro Beanfield War,' but 'the Legend of Bagger Vance' remains a conceit, and a pretentious one at that. It's physically beautiful, and smooth as butter, but this combination of mysticism and manicured lawns doesn't work.
The cast tries hard. It's not Smith's fault that Bagger Vance can't even be accepted on the vaporous terms of this movie. Matt Damon can't turn Junuh into a believable character partly because we never have a clear idea (other than The War) what made him fall apart, or how he keeps alive now. Charlize Theron tries hard as the spunky, courageous heiress, but the story of her relationship with Junuh never connects for the fraction of a second with the story of Bagger Vance and his all-purpose philosophy.
In terms of acting, two of the best performances are by people playing the same role. Newcomer J. Michael Moncrief is as believable as a pair of sneakers as the boy Hardy Greaves; if the whole film had his natural realism, it might have worked. And in his last movie, the unbilled Jack Lemmon is warm and real as the elderly Hardy, who narrates the movie from the present. (He may be dead in the last scene, as we see him strolling across a gorgeous golf course toward a figure in the distance who may be the unaged Bagger Vance.)
The DVD is strangely scant in terms of extras. There's that nearly-useless introduction by Redford, and a very standard making-of featurette that somehow manages to almost completely ignore the fact that the movie is based on a novel. The sound is superb throughout, crisp, clean and sharp; the surround elements come into play primarily in chapter 4, in Hardy's brief bicycle ride through a swamp, and later in the crowd noises during the golf tournament that forms more than half the film.
If you liked 'The Legend of Bagger Vance,' this is a good way to own it, but if you haven't seen it, and aren't inclined toward philosophical musings on sports, reach for another movie.