Legend of Bagger Vance
Every subject in the world can be rendered as exciting cinema – even golf. Unfortunately Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu died before they were able to turn their attentions to making the great golf movies. Instead, we have been treated to the best efforts of Ron Shelton (Tin Cup, 1996) and Robert Redford with The Legend of Bagger Vance.
Alas, their best is not nearly good enough. Redford started promisingly as a director with the intense, domestic drama Ordinary People (1980). His career has been in steep decline ever since and reaches its nadir here. It is an even more ponderous, inflated and self-important film than his previous dud, The Horse Whisperer (1998).
It is a typically soggy tale of male pathos. Rannulph (Matt Damon) is a golf champion whose experience of the inhumanity of World War I leaves him devastated. He wanders the world, leaving behind everything – his sports career and his lover, Adele (Charlize Theron).
But a chance for redemption looms in the form of Bagger (Will Smith), a mysterious figure who haunts golf courses. Bagger is too good to be true – laid back, selfless, forever dispensing nuggets of folksy wisdom – so he must be a magical spirit or guardian angel of some sort. There is precious little mystery in this premise, and almost no dramatic interest.
Much of the film covers a single golf tournament, Rannulph's comeback match. Redford tries to pep up proceedings with a pair of laconic professionals (played by Bruce McGill and Joel Gretsch) and an annoying little boy, Hardy (J. Michael Moncrieff) who carries the clubs for Rannulph and narrates the story from a predictable Wonder Years perspective of adult wisdom.
Meanwhile, the golf balls keep flying through the air or rolling along the green, between pale episodes of self-doubt, personal discovery and rekindled relationships. Redford is unable to rivet our attention to any of this minimalist sports action.
Instead, he covers every shot with a luminous fog meant to signify glorious nostalgia, and dissolves the specifics of the game into grating, New Age, quasi-spiritual proverbs like "know your place in the field" and "golf, like life, is a game that cannot be won – only played."
Less talk and more play might have helped this relentlessly awful film.
© Adrian Martin February 2001