Twenty years ago, Robert Redford’s directorial career began at a zenith when his first effort, Ordinary People, won Oscars for best picture, director, supporting actor and adapted screenplay. His subsequent films have been a varied lot but usually have several things in common: soft golden-hued landscapes and lead characters with almost mythical qualities. The one notable exception – Quiz Show – is arguably his best recent work. The Legend of Bagger Vance returns to familiar Redford territory, but with meager results. Intended as a Zen fable for adults, it succumbs to a simplistic plot and a suffocating overload of sentimentality, at times so sweet it could give Mr. Rogers diabetes.
Savannah, Georgia socialite Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron) has a problem. The swank golf resort built by her father before he committed suicide is going broke – it’s 1931 and the Great Depression has decimated its customer base. To publicize the club, Adele devises a $10,000 winner-take-all golf match between the game’s two biggest stars, Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones. Her creditors agree, on one condition – a local golfer has to be included in the contest. Adele’s choice as savior is Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), who fifteen years before was winning every tournament around Savannah. But Junuh himself needs salvation – since returning from World War I (where he won the Medal of Honor but lost his entire platoon) he’s descended into despair and drink; his golf swing is shot. He had been Adele’s beau, but abandoned her after returning from France. Help for Junuh arrives in the form of Bagger Vance (Will Smith), a caddy with a ready smile and a simple philosophy: "Inside each and every one of us is our one true authentic swing."
In transferring Steven Pressfield’s novel to the screen, Redford and screenwriter Jeremy Leven have wrung most of the magic from the original story. The book is as much philosophy as sports tale, but what remains here largely revolves around the golf course. And how that story is handled is stagy and ponderous, moving ahead in fits and starts with an oppressive narration (by an uncredited Jack Lemmon, who also appears in a cameo at the beginning and end of the film) that intrudes more than illuminates. It’s almost vaudevillian in the episodic way that scenes are mashed together with musical cues indicating where the audience should boo or cheer. The photography isn’t much better. With universally golden hues and smoke and fog machines working overtime, the intent is to create a spiritual atmosphere but instead most scenes look more like an acid trip designed by Hallmark. Between the turgid pace and the glowing lighting, the entire production appears to have been submerged in maple syrup.
Given Will Smith’s vacant grinning and shuffling as Bagger, that syrup was probably Aunt Jemima. Bagger is a potentially engaging character and Smith an always personable performer, but here he does little more than smile, stare gauzily off into the distance and issue platitudes. At film’s end, he actually shuffles off into the sunset. Charlize Theron’s Adele is strictly high school level Tennessee Williams – full of gasps and exasperated pouts, even a hand-to-forehead faint. Her accent switches sides of the Mason-Dixon Line from scene to scene. She’s supposedly a Georgia debutante, but her performance is strictly Virginia ham. Matt Damon manages to convey some of the complexity of Junuh and the torture he suffers at having lost both the sport and the woman he loves, but the story line eventually makes him into nothing more than Jack Armstrong with a golf club.
In his previous films like A River Runs Through It and The Horse Whisperer, Robert Redford has used a reverent love of the land to elevate everyday nature to the status of a European cathedral. Here’s he’s taken a spiritual folk tale and reduced it to the level of a five dollar Nassau on the back nine. The Legend of Bagger Vance attempts to be an epic fable, but fizzles.
– Bob Aulert