“The Legend of Bagger Vance” is an eminently likable film, full of eminently likable stars playing eminently likable characters. It seems to have delusions of being a deep, meaningful piece of work, but if you disregard that false notion, there’s nothing not to like about it.
In the midst of the Great Depression, Georgia socialite Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron) is struggling to retain her wealth after her father’s death. In particular, there’s a luxurious new golf course that has suffered a bit, what with the lack of rich people to use it.
As a promotion, Adele gets the South’s two best golfers to play an exhibition match. But the Savannah locals want one of their own to play, too — and fortunately, the man who used to be one of the nation’s best golfers is both a local boy and Adele’s ex-boyfriend.
That man is Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), a shell-shocked World War I veteran who has not picked up a club since coming home and who indeed seems to have lost his “swing.” He also has not spoken to Adele since he got back, though he reluctantly agrees to play in the tournament.
Out of the mists comes Bagger Vance (Will Smith), an apparently rootless black man who convinces Junuh that he can help him regain his prowess on the links. Simultaneously, he helps him get his life together, too. “A man’s grip on his club is like his grip on his world” is one of Bagger’s many golf-Zen platitudes that constitute the film’s depth.
Director Robert Redford treats the subject of golf more seriously than most movies do, and he actually makes some of the tournament seem exciting, which I wouldn’t have supposed possible for that sport. It’s a bit of a relief to realize that the movie’s focus is the tournament, and that when the tournament ends, the film will shortly follow it. Things would be different if we felt the movie working toward some great truth or poignant statement, but since it’s not, we’re glad it doesn’t belabor what feeble points it has.
Matt Damon and Will Smith could carry almost any movie on their charisma alone, and Jack Lemmon as the narrator and Bruce McGill as sensationalistic pro golfer Walter Hagen add to it. Smith is a little too hip to pull off the “yes, suh,” Brer Rabbit-type character he’s playing, but he’s no less charming than he usually is.
The film’s lack of substance is a bit troubling — it sometimes has the tone of something that’s supposed to be wise — but the sunny atmosphere and chipper attitude keep it from being a deal-breaker.
B (2 hrs. 5 min.; )