The Legend of Bagger Vance
Reviewed in October 2000
Director: Robert Redford. Cast: Matt Damon, Will Smith, Charlize Theron, J. Michael Moncrief, Joel Gretsch, Bruce McGill, Jack Lemmon. Screenplay: Jeremy Leven (based on the novel by Steven Pressfield).

Photo © 2000 20th Century Fox/DreamWorks SKG
The Legend of Bagger Vance is not the legend of Bagger Vance at all, but that of Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), a one-time golfing sensation whose spirit is broken by the experience of fighting World War I, and who thereafter returns to his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, listless, inebriated, and anonymous. Bagger Vance, played by Will Smith, is a fablic, hucksterish enigma who arrives magically in Junuh's life just as he is attempting to revive his skills on the links. I suppose people will be tempted to call Bagger a sort of "inspirational" character, perhaps even a "hero," because he stewards Junuh through not merely a renaissance in his abilities but a revival of his investment in the game—the kind of thing Bridget Jones would call "inner poise" but which Robert Redford's film offers without a smirk as a religion, a Pilgrim's Progress over putting greens. Any idiot knows how the plot will fare, so there's no need for me to be secretive or gingerly about ruining it.

Then again, there is also no need to handle the plot at all, because all that is worthless, cheap, and empty about The Legend of Bagger Vance—which is to say, essentially the entire film—is manifestly troubling in the very premise of the story, the sketching of its characters, the structure of its narrative. Like last year's The Green Mile, this claptrap is so busy sanctifying its genteel nostalgia and congratulating itself for featuring a black actor in a prominent role that no one ever realizes that the nostalgia is for a place and an era that never existed, or that the claps on the back are for a character who revives extravagant racist stereotypes rather than surpassing them.

Redford, as both actor and director, is by now fatally overcommitted to stories about "losses of innocence" and "second chances": his films increasingly fail to distinguish between these two, and as both are equally hackneyed in his treatments, the distinction hardly matters. Already, the crucible of loss through which we first see Junuh pass is so unconvincing that his later revitalization has no hope of attracting our interest or sympathy. Like Forrest Gump—yet another film that sold fundamentalist provincial daydreams as an "inspiring" liberal fable, and did so by eviscerating history of all its specific content—Bagger Vance portrays Junuh's disenchantment as the result of a shockingly phony war sequence, one in which the dreamy lighting and stilted editing demote war from a scene of actual horror to a stock narrative moment of airbrushed atrocity. It doesn't really matter that Junuh is at war, what war he's in, or what he does there—and indeed, based on what little we see, we are surprised later by the information that he won a Congressional Medal of Honor. It only matters that Junuh endure some shorthand Hardship, of which any version will do. (He could as easily gone bankrupt, or been hit by a truck, or lost a relative.) Besides, Redford has by now offered us so many hypotheses as to the exact moment of America's fall from grace—the First World War, the settlement of the Old West, the vulgarizing of TV—that none of his ideas have any particularity anymore, and even less credibility. He is The Boy Who Cried Loss of Innocence, whom we have long since ceased to believe.

If Junuh's plight seems arbitrary, the very personalities of the other lead characters are inscrutable. Adèle (Charlize Theron), the haughty, supercilious heir of her millionaire father's golf resort, was Junuh's high-visibility girlfriend before he left for battle. She has not heard from him since he returned from war, though the movie can't decide whether we should fault him or not for that. Sure, it makes Adèle cry, but she's so erratic and dimensionless a figure—willing, it is strongly suggested, to sleep with Junuh all these years later in order to recruit him into her business-saving charity tournament—that it's impossible to relate to her, or even to know who she is. Theron, whom I find less a chameleonic actress than a cipherish one, is as tepid a presence here as she was in The Cider House Rules, where her wild oscillations between marital fidelity, adulterous love, moral indignation, and total self-interest were equally impossible to keep up with.

Still, it is in the creation of Bagger Vance himself that the film sinks from dizzy-headed trifle to reckless, outrageous dishonesty. In press related to the film, co-producer Michael Nozik has described Bagger as a "Native American coyote trickster," and costar Theron has expressed her fascination with how "you don't ever know where he comes from or where he's going." Far from offering worthy praise of this character or this script, which Jeremy Leven adapted from Steven Pressfield's novel, itself a Dixieland spin on the Hindu text the Bhagavad-Gita (!), these comments indicate just how unspecific Bagger Vance is in situating its ostensible protagonist . . . and just how proudly uninterested the filmmakers show themselves in regards to making the character a credible, autonomous figure.

Has it, for example, occurred to anyone that Bagger would not even have been legally allowed to walk on Theron's golf course in Depression-era Savannah, much less inspire its athletes to unprecedented accomplishments? Could it be more patently obvious that the "legend" of Bagger Vance comprises nothing but his selfless, almost adoring rehabilitation of a white gentleman's bruised ego? For a long time, I wondered whether the preternatural neglect shown to Bagger Vance by all the other characters, save Junuh and his pre-adolescent idol-worshipper Harley (J. Michael Moncrief), actually was preternatural. That is, I wondered whether this cryptic visitor was invisible to all eyes but Junuh's, who so desperately needs a Fairy Soulbrother, imaginary or otherwise. Adèle, however, has one scene of addressing a few inconsequential remarks to Bagger, a minute of screen time that accomplishes nothing except verification that the radical inattention shown to Bagger is the result of genuine psee-right-through-him indifference, not of supernatural hokum, which might actually have been preferable.

Finally, in another parallel to The Green Mile, Redford's film pretends somehow to ennoble this absurd, insulting figure by rendering him immortal: that's Bagger's silhouette we see waving to doddery old Jack Lemmon in the film's needless frame-story. (Period-appointed nostalgia is so chokingly over-evoked throughout that the visual image of a codger lost in his memories is wholly redundant.) Since Bagger embodies naught but the wish to revitalize the ruling class through fortune-cookie prophecies about "finding your swing" and "coming back to yourself," his survival through the ages cannot be coherently read except as a statement of the permanent availability of black "spirituality" to more worldly [white] people who have briefly lost their way. The film wants to be Terry McMillan for white guys: How Junuh Got His Swing Back. In that ambition, the man of color whom the movie pretends to be "about" can serve no purpose once the swing is restored. Junuh wins the game and the girl. Bagger retreats to the horizon, seen at a distance and, even then, only as an outline that no one can fill in.

Redford's not the only talent prostituting an ever-narrowing talent to a story that deserves nothing: Damon abandons the relative stretching of The Talented Mr. Ripley to recycle that same genius-in-jeopardy act he debuted in Good Will Hunting and can now do while getting his teeth polished. And of Smith, whose idea of a concluding grace note is a Stepin Fetchit-style two-step on a beach, we can only wonder what he was thinking when he took this part. (Even the invincible Morgan Freeman, whom Redford had slotted to costar when he was planning to appear as Junuh himself—!!!—would have been sunk by this thankless role.)

Hollywood should know better by now, though it obviously doesn't, than to propagate stories of white, Southern will to power, refracted (though barely) through black servants who observe with smiling, indulgent eyes. Shame on DreamWorks Pictures for this frail, disgusting film. Even if you can see past the politics, which you shouldn't, it's never about anything except gentrified athleticism as a spiritual plane. And should we care that Prince Arjuna, the Bhagavad-Gita's star pupil, was being primed for necessary battle, while the film's princely Junuh is getting pumped for 72 holes? At the very least, even if the film is too banal to count as sacrilege, the shift in priorities shouldn't surprise us. The only thing The Legend of Bagger Vance finally holds sacred is the image of two aristocrats who have barely spoken in two hours, reconciled after all into a narcissistic dance for "love." Shame on us, too, then, if we turn Bagger—which, thank goodness, I paid no money to see—into a $100 million blockbuster, as we did The Green Mile. Sit this one out. Please. F


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