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IN SHORT: Golf as a metaphor for Life. Endless, until it's over. [Rated PG-13. 127 minutes]
Yes, another Sports as Life movie. We've seen 'em before, usually with baseball as the metaphor in the middle. This time out the focus is on golf, a sport which becomes more attractive as one becomes older and more sedentary. Perhaps because of this -- golf as a subject would've bored the stuffing out of any teen, pre Tiger Woods -- one of the strongest supporting roles goes to an eleven year old kidlet. Since we first meet this kid as a heart attack suffering old man it doesn't do anything other than to bust a dam holding back sentimental tidings and tales of personal enlightenment befit only for those of us facing Death's imminent arrival.
Then again, Death is the only thing guaranteed when you come into this Life. Prepare for a helluva lot more pseudo-philosophical soft soap to come if you sit through this flick.
Despite the title, the legends seen in this story are the men who walk the golf course. For purposes of the story center stage belongs to Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), a shell shocked World War I vet who, before the war, was the pride of Savannah, Georgia's golfing elite. Post war, he is a card playing drunk who has abandoned his belle of the ball wife, Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron). Adele, whose late father's Krewe Island luxury golf course is facing bankruptcy in the Great Depression is staging a winner-take-all golf match, pitting the two legends of the day, Bobby Jones (Joel Gretch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill) against each other. To make it work, and to keep the suits off her back, Adele must convince Rannulph to join the competition. The only person in Savannah who seems to know where Rannulph is hiding is Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief and later, Jack Lemmon), a kidlet who father has told the boy tales of the great Junuh and is his greatest fan.
Rannulph is hiding, you see, because he has "lost his swing," said swing being the metaphor for a life which has seen him go from top dog to hero/sole survivor of an Ardennes Forest massacre to the loser drunk we meet circa 1930. Late at night, sometimes, Rannulph'll whack golf balls out into the darkness but it's never the same. Lost in the past, he is a man greatly in need of guidance and enlightenment and the opportunity in which to experience it. That's where "Bagger Vance" (Will Smith) enters the picture, a black man coming out of the dark in a Deep South where no one harbors any racial enmity at all. Bagger spouts Zen Buddhist sounding nonsense -- visions of Jackie Gleason danced in our heads as we waited for the man to say "be the ball". He didn't -- while Rannulph gets pummeled by the competition.
Like any Us against the World sports story, you know where it's heading. The trick is to build emotional tension so that we get carried along for the ride, which doesn't happen here. There's little to mark the Bagger character as anything more than an asterisk in the career of a "legendary" golfer. His real impact on the boy/man who tells the story is greater at the end of a life than at the time of first encounter, and that boy is less important to the overall story than he is made out to be in the film.
All the problems of Rannulph's life are, we are told in an epilogue, remedied. But we don't get to see it. "The Legend of Bagger Vance", the novel, must've been a great read because it feels as if a couple of hundred pages of character development and story never made it to the big screen.
The Legend of Bagger Vance provides nothing that should sit in legend and little to linger in the memory of a ticket buyer other than the meticulous and classy-looking production values that always accompany a Robert Redford directed film. Our problem with Bagger Vance was that the film moves so slowly, just like golf, that we caught at least one major continuity error (the point being that Redford doesn't make continuity errors. If he has, the stories in his films were big enough and compelling enough that we never saw 'em.)
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Legend of Bagger Vance, he would have paid...
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