DreamWorks // 2000 // 127 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // May 15th, 2001
Zen and the Art of Golf-Course Maintenance.
The latest film from director Robert Redford is The Legend of Bagger Vance, a Zen-like mystical slant on what might otherwise be a fairly ordinary sports film. Well acted and beautifully filmed, I was a bit surprised it received no Academy Award nominations. Dreamworks has finally released the film on DVD, and it is worth your time. However, the quality of the story and the characters might make you decide it is not worth your money, so read on.
The Legend of Bagger Vance is told in flashback, from a framing story told by Hardy Greaves (Jack Lemmon) in the present day. The real meat of the story takes place in the Great Depression, which has hit Savannah Georgia hard. Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron) is left with a new golf course and a mountain of debt after her father's death, and decides the way to get enough people to know about the course is by staging a celebrity golf exhibition with a $10,000 prize. Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill), two of the most famous golfers of the time, are to be two of the participants. The third is Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), once a local hero but now an emotionally scarred man after wartime trauma. The young Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief) tracks him down, followed by Adele, and finally Rannulph agrees to play in the big game. But Rannulph has lost his swing, and from the mists arrives a Zen spiritual master in the form of Bagger Vance (Will Smith), a youthful black caddy with wisdom far beyond his years. Vance will instruct Junuh in the ways of life and golf, and make him a better person and golfer for the knowledge.
There's a lot to like in Bagger Vance. First and foremost, the cinematography is beautiful, both in ethereal outdoor scenes and the lush antebellum architecture of the interiors. My first thought after seeing the film is that it probably deserved a nomination for cinematography. The cast does a fine job with their performances as well. J. Michael Moncrief, in his acting debut, brought the most realism to his character and really stood out. Matt Damon and Charlize Theron show enough chemistry to carry the romantic angle, and do well with what they are given to work with. Will Smith carries the dramatic role very well, but is unfortunately reduced to repetitively giving out Zen-like quotations such as "The rhythm of the game is like the rhythm of life" and "Inside each and every one of us is one true authentic swing," and I confess I was waiting for him to say "If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will!" and start sprouting big green ears. Bruce McGill did a fantastic job as the colorful Walter Hagen, and was the best part of the supporting cast.
Technically speaking, the DVD version of the film is excellent. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is gorgeous: the beautiful nature shots, the greens of the golf course, the buildings; everything is rendered beautifully. There are no discernible flaws to the image, which isn't unusual for a Dreamworks disc. The sound is likewise terrific: a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1, 2.0, or DTS 5.1 is offered, and each transcends the usual limitations of a drama soundtrack. The mix is subtly applied, but directional effects are accurate throughout, and there is more low end than I expected. Dialogue is always clear (except when it is intentionally muffled), and the sound is very clear and transparent. Both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 soundtracks are enabled for the rear center channel as well, so if you are equipped for it you will be even more impressed.
Extra content is slight, which is a shame. The best of the lot is the four-minute featurette "Robert Redford: Insight Into The Legend of Bagger Vance" in which he discusses his philosophy for the film. I had a bone to pick with him during his comments, because he seemed to imply that a golf course was something great for the environment, while I consider it an artificial construct that doesn't really approximate nature at all. Still his comments were appreciated, and a feature length soundtrack would have been even better. A typical promotional featurette lasts another four minutes, but adds no new knowledge about the film. The remaining extra content consists of the theatrical trailer and teaser, production notes, and cast and crew biographies. I would have appreciated more.
The film made no bones about trying to tell the story as myth, and often beats the viewer over the head with the device. Bagger Vance is a mythic character, and as written should have been played by someone 20 years older. Robert Redford initially planned to play Junuh himself, and have an older actor for Bagger, and I think that would have worked better, both for the Vance character and for the age of Junuh considering the timeline of the film. I'm not complaining about the performance of either Matt Damon or Will Smith, but both seemed too young for their roles. The mythical nature of the story also relates to Southern tradition, where the air of gentility seems to overshadow the experience of blacks in the Depression-era South. Adele Invergordon is almost a mythical representation of the brave, long-suffering Southern woman waiting for her man. Charlize Theron still did a fine job with her role, and was more entertaining than either of the two male lead characters.
The problem with the Rannulph Junuh character is that he isn't as cleverly drawn as he should be. His traumatic past and current state of dissolution is explained via flashbacks and a construction that seems more like a plot device than a real character. The Vance character is too much mythical spiritual advisor and not quite enough real person. When he gets the chance to act like a real human being he is funny and carries his weight, but at times the platitudes get too heavy handed.
The Legend of Bagger Vance is a somewhat flawed film with its too obvious philosophical and metaphysical bent, but has moments of greatness, and when it pretends to be a sports film about a golf match succeeds. There are good performances and beautiful cinematography that tip the scales into the positive range, and I'd give it at least a recommendation for a rental. Whether the mythology and Zen philosophy appeals to you will be better revealed after that viewing. If you are a fan of the film, the wonderful picture and sound will make the disc a safe buy, though the extra content isn't all I would like it to be.
I'm willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt, and release it to the public without argument. Dreamworks again gets kudos for a great technical presentation, but I would have liked to see more substantial extra content.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 6.1 ES (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Production Notes
* Cast and Crew Biographies