It’s the rare sports movie that’s actually just about sport, and The Legend of Bagger Vance is the usual thing: a male oriented, self serious bedtime story about a man for whom a game involving holes and a small ball represents nothing less than the meaning of life. Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), from Savannah, Ga., is a handsome swain whose extraordinary talent on the links is shot to hell by World War I. Battle has shattered his nerves, as well as his engagement to Adele (Charlize Theron), a swan-like Savannah belle.
As envisioned in Steven Pressfield’s novel and adapted by Jeremy Leven, Junuh comes home a wreck, and might have squandered the rest of his life drinking in juke joints but for an amazing confluence of events: Number one, Adele, trying to promote the resort she inherited from her father in the depths of the Great Depression, organizes an exhibition golf match featuring the game’s (real life) ranking gentleman star, Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch), and its biggest showman, Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill), for which the city burghers demand the inclusion of a local player.
Number two, Junuh is visited by a mysterious guardian angel who calls himself Bagger Vance and offers to caddy. But this is no ordinary schlepper. While he shoulders the clubs, he imparts Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul advice to Junuh (‘You lost yo’ swang; we gotta go fahnd it”; ”Everyone’s got one true, authentic swang”) with a righteousness made tolerable only because Vance is played by the authentically likable Will Smith.
The similarity between Smith’s role and that of Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile is conversation for a different dinner party; suffice it to say, they’re both Magical Negroes put on earth to help white folk. What’s of greater interest — maybe for white folk — is how this par for the course fable, with its hero’s journey from despair to triumph to hubris and back to faith, fits in with myths of American manhood that enchant the director of Bagger Vance, Robert Redford.
Let Kevin Costner shrug and sweet talk in a Tin Cup world of rumpled, middle aged boys; Redford’s eye is on a much higher birdie, a vision out of The Natural. The director’s gold-lit world, the same universe in which A River Runs Through It isn’t just about fly fishing and The Horse Whisperer isn’t just about equine stress reduction, relies on a ritualized filmmaking style that leaches his story of excitement. (Redford’s golf metaphors are to Al Gore as Costner’s are to George W. Bush.)
There’s not a moment in Bagger Vance that can’t be anticipated, from the birds in flight above a verdant golf course to the look in Adele’s eyes as she falls in love with Junuh all over again. Theron alternates a slow pouring drawl with the gestures of a headstrong designing woman; Damon flashes his disarming smile of Hollywood noblesse, Smith grins with multimillion dollar humility. ”Come out of the shadows,” Vance coaxes Junuh, who loses a ball in the dark woods. But for useful tips on what iron to use, you’re on your own. C+