[Written for Film.com]
As an actor and director, Robert Redford seems sincerely and deeply drawn to American mythology, from the mystic fishermen of A River Runs Through It to those western archetypes the Sundance Kid and Jeremiah Johnson to that most sacred of literary mysteries, The Great Gatsby. Every minute of The Natural oozes with the urge to create myth out of Americana, which may be why that movie feels like a Redford film even though it was directed by Barry Levinson.
Given Redford’s near-obsession with this kind of thing, it is strange that his movies fail to cut deep. This stuff might mean a lot to the director, but you only sense it in patches—the rapturous texture of the outdoors in River, or the uncharacteristic TV-quick momentum of Quiz Show. The Legend of Bagger Vance follows all too closely in the vein of folklore, and Redford has opted for a light, whimsical approach. The result is fantasy that wafts away.
It’s narrated by an old golfer (Jack Lemmon) recalling his childhood. As a boy (played by the splendid young nonprofessional J. Michael Moncrief), he witnessed the rise of a Savannah native son, a golf prodigy named Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon). But Junuh was broken by the First World War, and vanished. In 1931, he is resurrected when his ex-fiancée, one Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron), mounts a golfing exhibition to pay off the bills from her father’s exquisite golf course. The match is set between America’s most celebrated duffers, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, with the washed-up Rannulph thrown in as local interest.
Rannulph has “lost his grip,” literally and figuratively, and out of the night mist comes a wanderer to help him find it again. He is Bagger Vance, played by Will Smith with a cheerful sense of play (you can almost sense how difficult it is for Smith to hold back his ebullience, but when he does, the result is charming). Bagger, a caddie who has evidently spent some years in an Eastern monastery, doles out the mystic advice, and Rannulph finds himself again.
Redford’s approach is to present this as a straight fairy tale, with unreal sets, perfect costumes, and no bothersome connection to anything like reality. The Great Depression is an MGM backlot Depression, and in this sunlit Savannah black folks and white folks mix without a hint of Jim Crow. The romping nature of the comedy simply isn’t Redford’s bailiwick, which may be why Will Smith’s quiet control comes off so well by comparison. (Mention should be made of Bruce McGill and Joel Gretsch, who carve out nifty portraits of the knickers-wearing Hagen and Jones.) Perhaps the concept would not have worked with a more realistic approach, either, but at least the counterpoint might have brought some tension. As it is, Bagger Vance leaves an impression like dew on a fairway: pretty to look at, and very quickly gone.