Published Nov 01, 2000Robert Redford's films like "The Natural" (which Redford didn't direct, thought it feels like he did) and "A River Runs Through It" wear their over-determined metaphors like lead. His new film, "The Legend of Bagger Vance," gives the game of golf the same kind of treatment, but it's thankfully lighter on its feet. Redford isn't trying so hard to convince us that golf (like baseball or fly fishing) actually represents something else; instead he uses the game as a tool or a medium to extract something true and eternal out of his characters. The miracle of this film is that, after a wobbly start, it actually achieves a calm, optimistic sense of authenticity that, in its quietest moments, sneaks up and knocks you over with a feather.
It takes a while for the story to finds its legs, but it does so once it strolls its way onto the golf course and stays there for the last half of the film. It begins with a lot of exposition about a child-prodigy golfer named Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon) who quit the game after returning, a shell-shocked, reluctant hero, from World War I. Junuh is well into another night of drinking himself into a stupor at a poker table when a boy named Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief) shows up and convinces him to play a tournament against two of the greatest golfers around, Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill) and Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch). That this event is sponsored by his estranged ex-fiancé, Adele (Charlize Theron), causes his past to come into sharper focus, ready to be faced in one life-altering package.
As if on cue, Junuh gets some much needed assistance with his rusty golf swing when an unassuming caddy named Bagger Vance (Will Smith) ambles onto his backyard, offering some coaching for a flat rate of five dollars. Smith's character, a hands-in-his-pockets sage, more slumming than angelic, is smartly downplayed, and his gentle mentorship has all the more impact for it. Redford has the intuition of an old soul, and Damon and Smith have an uncanny rapport - Smith with his easy charm and humour, and Damon with his underlying tension, and an uneasy grip on his golf club that lets us know just how alienated Junuh has become from his former self.
"The Legend of Bagger Vance" has some problems, most notably the too-literal narration by Jack Lemmon as the grown-up Hardy Greaves, but for the most part, this is a movie that soars, especially in its final moments, with a game played into the twilight hours. The camera soars as well, zooming over the green to follow the trajectory of the ball; it's a shot that lifts you out of your seat and approximates the way it feels when you fly in dreams. Redford and his screenwriter Jeremy Leven, have an old-fashioned sense of honour and forthrightness that I found oddly shocking. When Junah asks young Hardy what he likes about golf, he responds, "It's the only game I know where you can call a penalty on yourself if you're honest, which most people are." That line made me do a mental double take, and I found I actually couldn't dismiss its buoyant wisdom.