The Legend of Bagger Vance

All movie guide rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Robert Redford directed this adaptation of a novel by Steven Pressfield that uses golf as a metaphor for one man's spiritual and philosophical journeys. Rannulph Judah (Matt Damon) was a gifted amateur golfer from Savannah, GA, until traumatic experiences during World War I shattered his confidence and sent him into a spiral of alcoholism. In 1931, Adele Invergordon (Cherlize Theron), a beautiful heiress who once loved Judah, inherits a spectacular but financially ailing golf course after the suicide of her father. To attract customers, she proposed a high-stakes match between the two most famous golfers of the day, Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill). Local businessmen sponsoring the match insist that a local golfer be added to the card, and Judah is drafted for the position, but it soon becomes obvious that his game is just a shadow of its former glory. When things seem hopeless, a mysterious gentleman named Bagger Vance (Will Smith) volunteers to serve as Judah's caddy and coach, using a mixture of ancient wisdom and past-life knowledge to help Judah "remember" the swing he's lost. Jack Lemmon narrates the story, and J. Michael Moncrief plays Lemmon's character as a boy. -- Mark Deming, All Movie Guide

The Legend of Bagger Vance doesn't break any new ground, but with Steven Pressfield's inspirational novel to guide them, director Robert Redford and screenwriter Jeremy Leven have tilled fertile soil with a graceful touch. Redford does for golf what A River Runs Through It did for fly-fishing: the sport is a conduit for a philosophy of living, and Redford achieves the small miracle of making golf a central metaphor that's visually compelling.

Set in Savannah, Georgia, during the early '30s, the story charts the redemption of disillusioned World War I veteran and former golf champion Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), who emerges from self-imposed obscurity in an exhibition match against legendary golfers Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill). Having earlier abandoned the socialite (Charlize Theron) who has organized the tournament to promote her late father's spectacular golf resort, Junuh now depends on the support of a young fan (perfectly cast newcomer J. Michael Moncrief) and the mysterious Bagger Vance (Will Smith), a smiling Jiminy Cricket who serves as Junuh's caddy, golf guru, and Socratic angel of mercy.

As Junuh regains the "authentic swing" he feared was lost forever, Redford guides his splendid cast through a spiritual journey that is specific to the discipline of golf and yet potently universal. As always, Redford also conveys his respect for nature and the rhythms of life as well as a sweet nostalgia for simpler times and purer values. With the casting of Jack Lemmon as the film's present-day narrator and elderly version of Moncrief's character, The Legend of Bagger Vance gains even greater dignity and, indeed, the glowing aura of legend. --Jeff Shannon

Robert Redford's The Legend of Bagger Vance opens with a wildly distracting framing device. On a present-day golf course, the elderly Hardy Greaves suffers a coronary and collapses. Played by Jack Lemmon in his last film role, Greaves remembers his distant childhood while flat on his back. You are forgiven if you give his unfolding story short shrift and say, "Yeah, golf, whatever. Are you OK, Jack?!" Thankfully, Lemmon sounds well enough as he recalls off camera the scenes he witnessed as a young boy. During the Great Depression, a belle of Savannah named Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron) stages a high-profile golf tournament. She signs on two of the era's top golf phenoms, Bobby Jones (Joel Gretch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill), but the town burghers insist that she also coax local favorite Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon) to play. Junuh's spectacular golfing career had come to an abrupt end over a decade earlier; he's been a shattered man since World War I. He was also the only man to ever capture Adele's heart and she's still hopping mad that he dumped her, even if shell shock was to blame.

Junuh reluctantly comes out of retirement, but discovers that he's lost his swing. At that moment, a figure appears out of the darkness, introduces himself as Bagger Vance (Will Smith), and hires on as Junuh's caddie. Vance is not all he seems, of course. He's Obi Wan Kenobi in a hat and rumpled vest. We want him to say, "Use the Nine Iron, Luke!"

Because Robert Redford directed The Legend of Bagger Vance it screams to be compared to 1984's The Natural, perhaps Redford's last great starring vehicle. The two films are extraordinarily similar, both featuring over-the-hill athletes fighting for another chance on a nostalgic stage of small towns and mostly good-hearted folk.

By externalizing and personifying Junuh's will to succeed in the form of Vance, the newer film weakens the triumph of Junuh's struggle when compared with the older film. Roy Hobbs in The Natural stood by himself. Junuh has very visible assistance.

Certainly, Bagger Vance has a directorial style somewhat different from Barry Levinson's in The Natural. It is even more sentimental and elegiac than the earlier film, which is saying quite a bit. With many stunning location shots, Redford's depiction will not please the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil crowd. There are no undercurrents of oddity and evil in this idyllic Savannah. But Redford does succeed in making the golf game that takes up half the film interesting and he summons fine performances from the actors.

The DVD version of The Legend of Bagger Vance features two short "making of" featurettes. The first, Robert Redford: Insight into the Legend of Bagger Vance, offers a four-minute audio commentary on the film from Redford. Not surprisingly, given his environmentalist background, he seems to have derived his biggest satisfaction from the beautiful landscape shots in the film. A second featurette is a more typical film promo piece -- three minutes of quick cuts and uninformative two- or three-sentence interviews with the stars of the film. The package is rounded out with trailers and a hefty collection of production notes and cast and filmmaker bios. -- David Schwartz

My rating: 4 Stars