The Legend of Bagger Vance [3/10]

US 2000
dir Robert Redford
scr Jeremy Leven (based on novel by Steven Pressfield)
cin Michael Ballhaus
stars Matt Damon, Will Smith, Charlize Theron, J Michael Moncrief
127 mins

Or, as some people are already calling it, ‘The Legendary Bag o’Shite.’ Unfair? Only slightly, as this really is sentimental Hollywood glop at its most shamelessly gloopy.

Presumably inspired by (a) the rise of Tiger Woods, and (b) the success of golf guru Harvey Pennick’s motivational manuals, Bagger Vance continues Hollywood’s ongoing infatuation with the picturesque coastal city of Savannah, Georgia. Here it’s the home town of Rannulph Junuh (Damon), golden boy amateur-golf prodigy with a glorious future ahead of him – until World War I intervenes. He returns a broken hero, turning his back on golf, his family, his heiress sweetheart Adele (Theron) and the world, hitting the bottle and wallowing in self-pity.

Twelve years later the Great Depression hits hard and Adele’s ruined pappy reaches for his revolver. Desperate, she hits on the idea of staging a gimmicky golf tournament on her vast estate, finagling champs Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill) into taking part. Local pride requires a Savannah contestant, and, thanks to the interfering of a wide-eyed kid (Moncrief), Junuh eventually emerges from his exile, only to find he’s lost his all-important swing. Enter the mysterious Bagger Vance (Smith), materialising out of the gloom one night to offer his services as caddy and spiritual advisor.

The Legend of Bagger Vance rehashes Redford’s 1984 vehicle The Natural, in which a wounded – i.e. emasculated – hero regains his dignity – i.e. his virility – through the mystical powers of sporting achievement: it’s only after proving himself out on the course that Junuh is finally able to ‘dance’ with Adele again. This time the inspiration comes from Bagger Vance, whose name apparently refers to the sacred Hindu texts of Bhagavad Gita (why not just call him Bagger Vadd?) Vance isn’t really a character, more a continual stream of unbearably smug, off-puttingly anachronistic psychobabble, and Smith struggles to give him any depth. Perhaps if there had been some tension about Vance – southern golf courses aren’t known as bastions of racial integration, but Bagger’s presence passes, implausibly, without comment – his wisdom might be a little more hard-won, and the film might have had more pep.

Whatever energy the film does contain derives from Theron’s firecracker Adele. But she isn’t well served by the fuzzy script – nor by Redford’s over-romantic direction. Early on, there’s an unintentionally comic, ham-fisted moment when, silhouetted against golden waters at dusk, Adele scatters her father’s ashes into the wind and faints like a dying swan. Theron and Damon do make a fine couple during their sub-Gatsby evening-dress sequences at her mansion, but Damon fares less well in his scenes opposite Gretsch, a figure of such immaculate poise that even ‘golden boy’ Junuh looks distinctly tinny in comparison. Like Tom Cruise, Damon isn’t used to being upstaged and deploys his ‘charming’ cheesy grin in what looks a fit of like desperate panic.

Redford’s relentlessly square technique, meanwhile, would have looked dated even during the period the picture is set. The First World War, for instance, is evoked by a looming close-up of the word ‘WAR’ in a newspaper headline, fading to stock black-and-white images of trench horrors. Unwilling – or perhaps unable – to tell his story in visual terms, Redford relies on endless narration from Jack Lemmon, the wide-eyed kid 70 years on, recalling the ‘legend’ lying prostrate on a golf course after a mild heart attack. As a slice of sports mythology, Bagger Vance may be lapped up by this kind of ageing golf nut – the fact they hardly go to the cinema perhaps explains why the film bombed in the US – but it falls a long way short of John Sayles’ superficially similar baseball-scandal picture, Eight Men Out. For all its faults, that was a movie about adult themes, handled with intelligence and sensitivity. Watching Bagger Vance, however, is like eating a whole bag of Werther’s Originals at once: a near-fatal overdose of saccharine nostalgia.

2nd February, 2001