Legend of Bagger Vance, TheReviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 11/03/00 18:24:52
Just a week ago, Blair Witch 2 hit the silver screen. It carried the title of Book of Shadows. Up and down, back and forth I have searched to find one person, one review, or one description of the film, which clarified exactly what the Book of Shadows was. Sure, it’s only been a week, but I’m willing to bet that that’s a mystery, which will forever remain in the unsolved folder of celluloid enigmas. Now only if anyone can tell me what is so legendary about Bagger Vance.According to the new film by Robert Redford, Bagger Vance (Will Smith) is a mysterious drifter who happens upon the backyard of war-stricken recluse, Rannulph Junah (Matt Damon) at about the 30-minute point. Junah used to be a town (and Golf) legend, that is before he was sent off to war and watched his entire company get slaughtered. Now he’s “lost his swing” and its up to Bagger to help him find it. Using a less-is-more approach to teaching his new employer that can best be described as truly Miyagi-an, Bagger (despite top billing for Smith) is a minor supporting character who may talk a great game, just not that often.
Junah’s reemergence on the golf tee is due to his former love, Adele Invergorden (Charlize Theron). She’s the daughter of one of Savannah, Georgia’s richest men and when the depression hits the town and a bullet hits his head, it’s up to Adele to save the family land and that newly built golf course. She proposes to bring the greatest golf tournament to her father’s course by attracting the two greatest golfers in the country. But the Savannah Township wants one of their own to represent them. That one is Rannulph Junah.
This long prelude to the four-round 72-hole match is both hurried and slowed down to the pace of an arthritic turtle. There’s a lot of backstory to get out of the way before the story we’ve come to watch begins. A setup of this nature is usually fine, no matter how long it may seem, if it leads to a payoff of any magnitude. But it doesn’t, so the first half hour should either have been significantly shortened, perhaps starting with Junah’s drinking days (the way the trailer does), or lengthened to ensure the kind of emotional tug the film would like us to have.
Increasing our frustration is the use of a narrator, played by none other than Jack Lemmon. He bookends the film with appearances, at first seemingly playing an older version of Junuh as I expected Damon to morph into him by the end, a la Saving Private Ryan. But Lemmon is playing the older version of an annoying little kid named Hardy (J. Michael Moncrief), a witness to the events. And every time you might find yourself getting immersed into the story of Junuh, Bagger & Adele, either this kid’s story comes to the forefront or Lemmon’s voice appears to point out the absolute obvious (“Junuh had to exorcise his demons before he could find his stroke.”) This is screenwriting for the victims of the Jedi Mind Trick.
And that’s where this film truly comes apart. At the screenwriting level. Either that or a serious case of length trimming, which considering the 165-minute length of Redford’s last film, The Horse Whisperer, its easy to believe that he had a more epic tale in mind than the 127 minutes he has in theaters. The script as now feels like a bunch of dots with the lines between them missing. Think about the arrogance of setting such a golf match during the depression. Thousands of people out of work watching a bunch of rich people walk around a game of skill on acres and acres of open land. Think of the opportunities to either comment on the need for entertainment in people’s lives during hard times or a chance to draw a parallel
between the working class man struggling to put food on the table and the sports pro who makes exceedingly too much money for a job that is frequently referred to as “just a game.” Plus, while I was deep down a little pleased not to see another exploration of racism is in the recent Remember the Titans and the forthcoming cliché-ridden Men of Honor, not once does anyone comment on the minority caddy carrying D-Day’s bag or Bagger’s color. He must be one of the ancestors of the “volunteer slaves” working on Mel Gibson’s house in The Patriot.
Deciding to abandon any kind of depth to the storytelling, all the script has left is to develop three potentially interesting characters. Junuh’s character could be an interesting one (although we’ve seen it many times before). Similar to Redford’s Roy Hobbs in The Natural, Junuh is a great athlete in his youth who must fight those personal demons in order to forge a comeback later in life. Unfortunately, outside of fine performances by both Damon and Theron, there isn’t anything interesting to grab a hold of in their strained relationship for the audience. And Bagger Vance? Is he a reality? Or some conjured guardian angel to squeeze some life lessons out of hitting a little ball and then chasing it down? Each one of the three gets to deliver one good speech. For a game that requires the utmost concentration, why does Adele pick the worst possible to ask questions about her relationship with Junuh. His speech is about brain cells and the art of drinking and Bagger delivers a nice one predicting how the sun is going to affect the grass on the green. If only Will Smith would have gotten to deliver more dialogue of this caliber, we might actually get a little closer to discovering what the legend is.
The Legend of Bagger Vance, at times, does owe a lot to The Natural. The mythic overtones of that sports picture, while maybe corny to some, eventually worked because there’s something wondrous about a game that’s steeped in such rich tradition and produced so many heroes. You could probably fit the champions of golf (that most people who don’t follow it remember) on the flipside of that “famous Jewish sports legends” leaflet from Airplane. Yet Golf keeps getting quoted as “the greatest sport in the world, a game that can’t be won, just played.” Oh I get it; it’s a metaphor for living your life. Sand traps, water hazards and if you’re lucky, a hole-in-one. Too bad you don’t get any mulligans in your everyday life. But why is it so great? The movie never says. The annoying kid gets one opportunity saying; “it’s just about you, the balls and that big patch of green.” So why spend thousands of dollars on equipment and club memberships when you could just go masturbate in a field and get the same effect?
It’s a hard task trying to find something magical in the game of Golf. George Carlin said it was “like watching flies fuck” and haven’t the best Golf movies always lent themselves towards the comical side. Think fast. Caddyshack, Happy Gilmore and Tin Cup. And Tin Cup came the closest to mythologizing the game and a man’s swing. That film, while a romantic comedy at heart, also used Golf as the metaphor for one man’s life and actually produced more interesting conversations between a man and his caddy. Too bad they couldn’t get Ron Shelton to do another rewrite. Give me Dorf on Golf any day of the week.How many rewrites does it take to get to the center of a title character’s legend? Obviously more than were done. It’s easy for any film to be called a mess, but Bagger Vance is on nearly every level, partially because it has so much potential. Even Rachel Portman’s score goes from mystical and beautiful to the strains of a wacky screwball comedy. The film can’t decide what it wants to be. Metaphors are fine and all but aren’t they merely thinly veiled Confucius-like sayings about the big picture when, in a 2-hour plus movie, you’d rather just see the big picture and not the Cliff Notes? A day may eventually come. Not anytime soon, but eventually someone may be able to tell me what The Legend of Bagger Vance actually was.
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