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by: James Berardinelli

With The Legend of Bagger Vance, director Robert Redford has attempted, with only limited success, to do for golf what movies like The Natural and Field of Dreams did for baseball. There are three elements at work in this film. The first is the use of the game as a metaphor for life. The second is a plunge deep into the lore of the sport, throwing away the unsavory modern trappings that have become associated with it and getting back to the purity of the game. Finally, there's the traditional sports movie storyline that culminates in a "big game" scenario pitting the underdog against a stronger, more experienced champion. Stirring these ingredients together as called for by the recipe should result in an engaging motion picture. Strangely, however, The Legend of Bagger Vance comes across as incomplete and uninvolving. In his zeal to get the period details right and craft a reverent, almost mystical atmosphere, Redford committed a key blunder: he lost sight of the characters' humanity. The men and women inhabiting this motion pictures are types, ciphers, and mouthpieces for slogans, not individuals we can believe in and care for.

With the exception of a framing story that transpires in modern day (and features an unbilled cameo by Jack Lemmon as the narrator), the majority of The Legend of Bagger Vance takes place in the late 1920s in Savannah, Georgia. Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron), the inheritor of her late father's golf resort, has decided to erase her debts by staging a celebrity golf exhibition with a $10,000 prize. There are to be three participants: Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch), Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill), and a local phenom, Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), who was once considered to be one of the country's top prospects on the links. But that was before the war, from which he returned shellshocked and dispirited. Now, Adele, who was once his main squeeze and still carries a torch for him, must convince him to give up his drinking and start swinging the clubs again. It would be an impossible task if not for the aid of a local boy, Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief), who idolizes Junuh, and the mysterious Bagger Vance (Will Smith), who wanders into Junuh's life one night with a proposal to be his caddy for a guaranteed $5. In the process, he offers all the wisdom he possesses about golf and life.

Despite relying on several tried-and-true sports cliches, The Legend of Bagger Vance often comes across as pretentious. Redford hammers home the connection between golf and life with a host of half-baked lines that sound like bad dialogue from a self-help book: "The rhythm of the game is like the rhythm of life", "Inside each and every one of us is one true authentic swing", and "The golf course lives and breathes just like us". The capper is that, like life, golf is a game "that can't be won, only played." All of these lessons, and many more, come out of the mouth of Bagger Vance, who is like Obi-Wan Kenobi to Junuh's Luke Skywalker. He doles out sage advice, transforming his pupil from a burnt-out drunk into a self-assured man who can face the future.

Not one of these characters has an iota of personality that wasn't clearly manufactured on a screenwriter's word processor. Other than his slogans and sunny smile, there's nothing to Bagger. For all we know, he could be an angel on vacation. We learn plenty about Junuh, but too many of his characteristics are telegraphed, and his background is pieced together via a narrative voiceover accompanied by flashbacks. In the end, he seems more like a construct than a character, and it's difficult to muster much sympathy for him. Adele is a stereotypical tough Southern woman and is used primarily for comic relief and a little romantic tension. The only one who seems remotely real is Hardy, who at least behaves in a way that is consistent with someone his age.

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