The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The Natural retires and takes up golf.

There was a time when life moved with a gentler rhythm, and we carried around with us a set of myths to help us through when we seemed to be walking against too strong a wind. The myths served many purposes, but maybe the best reason to have them is that they seemed to help us find something stronger, something better inside ourselves, that they reminded us to redefine the possibilities periodically.

Bagger Vance transports us back to a gentlemanly and refined time, in which the game of golf serves as the ideal backdrop. It's a game that seems to move at a relaxed pace. Nobody is throwing or hitting things toward you, or punching you, or tackling you. There's not even an opponent, really. Golf is a game that takes place entirely inside of you. Your final score doesn't reflect on anything except how well you adapted to the circumstances of the day. In that respect, it represents a perfect backdrop for a story about sluggish America in the 1930's, beat down by a frustrating depression that stripped away the two elements which formed America's core of self-definition - prosperity and ingenuity.

In this case, America's symbol is Rannulph Junah, once a great golfing prospect before the Great War, but now beaten down by war and depression, turned into a purposeless drifter, a drunk and a gambler, a joyless man. His chance for redemption is provided by the city of Savannah and an ex-girlfriend, who need him to represent local honor in an exhibition golf match with Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones, golf's gods of the era. 

The table was set for an infinite round of sports movie clichés, and the film worked in its share. In addition, the script threw in the gratuitous title character, Bagger Vance, who appears from nowhere to be Junah's caddy in the big match, and whose every word carries some folk homilies and homespun philosophies. In fact, the movie is double-narrated in a particularly clumsy set of devices. The facts and feelings you're supposed to be aware of are revealed to you by the primary first person narration of the little kid who worships Junah, and is telling the story from our day. And the film's attitudes toward those circumstances are revealed to you by Bagger's words, since he's not really a man with hunger and mistakes and body odor, but rather a guardian angel who appears from the ether and later disappears on the 18th fairway. Bagger never converses in the film, never listens to anyone else. He is an omniscient narrator whose speeches represent some kind of mystical wisdom, I guess. I do know that the film's having both a first person and an omniscient narrator is just too much damned narratin' for my taste. 

I guess you've probably figured out by now that the movie has a lot of flaws, and there are some far worse than those I've described. For example, ol' Bagger is still alive in 2000 (in imagination or myth, of course), waving to the little narrator kid who has grown to be an old man (Jack Lemmon), just like the dead Darth Vader waving to Luke at the end of Return of the Jedi. And it was unfortunate that the Bagger character was a black man, because the script required him to do more more shufflin' than a Vegas dealer on a double shift. It was a caricature which seemed just on the edge of racism. Racist or not, the point is that Bagger was gratuitous. The script simply didn't need the Bagger device, and without it, the film would have been far more subtle and graceful, anchored in reality, featuring a real man overcoming his own demons without a damned guardian angel in a funny hat. 

There are also many positives. I love the look of the film, the golden-brown glow of the photography which captures so well one's great memories of golf in different conditions at different times of the day. That look is supported beautifully by the inspirational music and the period speech and costumes, ala The Natural. I thought the performers were universally excellent, especially Matt Damon and the two guys who played Jones and Hagen. The guy who played Jones was a masterstroke of casting, since he had everything for the role, from the look to the swing. In the case of Hagen, I'm not sure if D-Day (Bruce McGill) was that logical a casting choice, but damned if he didn't pull it off beautifully! As for Matt himself, I have not been a great fan of his in the past, but he's winning me over more with every film he makes, at least the ones without Affleck.

I think the movie thinks that it is profound and mythological. It was not profound, and was clumsy when it tried to build its myth. But it is a pleasant watch in any circumstance, and a delight if you are one of those people who believes that golf courses are America's cathedrals. It is gentle, leisurely, somewhat formal and polite, much like the game itself.  Not a great movie, and very corny, but a movie with a good heart.

A point in passing. Even though Robert Redford is a living legend and a capable filmmaker, and Will Smith is a man with box office magic, I believe that the studio made an error to approve a $60 million dollar budget for a golf movie. If this movie had been made for $10 million, like an Altman or a Woody Allen film, it still would have made the same $30 million at the box office, and everyone would have been happy. When you watch the film, you sure can't figure out why they needed $60 million to film a movie that takes place on a golf course.


DVD info from Amazon

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • Making-of featurette

  • long interview with Redford

  • The usual bios, trailers, TV ads, and a music video



The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars. Maltin 3/4, Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 2.5/4, Apollo 68.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.6, Apollo users 77/100. 
  • With their dollars ... made for $60 million dollars. It pulled in only $30 million domestic gross.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. It may even be a B-, because it is possible that many people who don't like golf will like this for the spiritual and romantic mysticism, just as many people who hate baseball movies liked The Natural.

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