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December 06, 2001

Movie's story misses the cut
By Dan Patrick

More than anything else, "The Legend of Bagger Vance" is a Robert Redford film. Redford creates a period look and feel as well as any director working today.

Will Smith, Matt Damon
As Bagger Vance, Will Smith, left, helps Matt Damon find his "authentic swing."

"Bagger Vance" is as beautiful to look at as "A River Runs Through It" and "The Horse Whisperer." 1930s Savannah, Ga., comes brilliantly alive in the sets and costumes. It's easy to settle in and immerse yourself in another time. Much of the movie plays as a beautiful slide show of Redford's Georgia golf vacation.

Actually, I liked the scenery more than the characters. Matt Damon is passable as the shell-shocked Rannulph Junuh. The exquisite and consistently underrated Charlize Theron is sweetly appealing as Junuh's love, Adele Invergordon, though her Southern accent is uneven.

Will Smith does a commendable job as Bagger Vance but is forced to deliver many "better living through golf" lines that grow quickly tiresome. While the acting is perfectly fine, charm and looks only take you, and the movie, so far. These characters go through rather predictable paces once you figure out the story.

Junuh is the golfing pride of Savannah. He goes off to World War I but returns ravaged by what he endured. He loses touch with his prior life, including his golf swing and the sweet Adele. This turn of events is merely shown to us and not really explored. The movie has simple messages: War is bad and golf is life.

The fresh and appealing Damon does not convey that his character has been through as much as the story says. War is supposed to be hell, not merely uncomfortable. He says, "There isn't enough whiskey in Georgia to get me drunk enough." But 12 years of drinking take virtually no toll on him. Junuh's life appears to be as trying as living in a Ralph Lauren magazine ad.

Adele has her own problems. Her father has put his fortune into a golf resort, but the Depression has set in once the place opens. Disaster looms. Her father commits suicide and Adele determines to save her father's dream by staging a golf match with Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen that will introduce the resort to the world at large.

She comes up with this idea when a gaggle of local bankers descend on her immediately after her father's funeral. These phonies pretend to have her best interests at heart but she can see through them. Adele convinces Jones and Hagen to play, so the locals have to go along with her -- but they demand that a son of Savannah play in the match as well.

Junuh is thus persuaded to put his bottle down and pick up his driver. But can he find his swing in time? Enter the mysterious Bagger Vance. You can guess the rest.

A tantalizing notion is that Redford toyed with the idea of playing Junuh with Morgan Freeman
as Vance.

Jack Lemmon is wonderful as Hardy Greaves, the narrator whose memories tell the tale. J. Michael Moncrief is also very winning as the young Greaves. Bruce McGill is fine as the dashing Hagen as is Joel Gretsch as the stoic Jones.

The golf is well-played and wonderfully filmed. It's the story that is a few strokes over par.

A tantalizing notion is that Redford toyed with the idea of playing Junuh with Morgan Freeman as Vance. That casting would have required major story changes regarding Junuh, as his character (and Adele's) would have to age considerably since Redford is, to be polite, a lot older than Damon.

But, no offense to Smith, Freeman would have been interesting as Vance. That character's age is of no consequence and his philosophical ramblings about golf and life might have played more convincingly if delivered by an actor with some miles on him.

The film that Redford only thought about is actually more provocative than the one he made. The movie uses golf as a metaphor for life. Redford would have been better off with characters that had done some living.

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