THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Sports movies are a dime a dozen, but there have been very few good movies about golf. Caddyshack is one, and Tin Cup is another. We can also add The Legend of Bagger Vance to the list. At the same time that I say this is a movie about golf, I also must say that this is not really about golf at all. This is a film about life that happens to use the game as a metaphor. Golfers will find it of obvious interest, but I think non-players will too.

Charlize Theron plays Adele Invergordon, a young woman who inherits a luxurious Savannah, Georgia, golf course from her late father. Unfortunately, the country is in the middle of the Great Depression, and people aren't paying big money to spend long weekends on posh golf courses. A group of overly-eager businessmen offer to buy out the course for much less money than it cost to create. Stubborn almost to a fault, Adele devises a plan to save her property: she will hold a $10,000 tournament to which the two greatest golfers in the country will be invited. They are Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill). The locals insist that a Savannah golfer play as well. The best one they have is Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), but he quit playing to become a drunken recluse after a tragedy in the war.

Will Smith teaches Matt Damon to find his swing again in The Legend of Bagger Vance
Complicating matters is that Junuh and Adele had previously been lovers; when he vanished, he never told her goodbye. Junuh initially wants no part of the tournament. He has, as he says, lost his swing. One night, as he slices some balls into the darkness, Junuh is approached by a stranger named Bagger Vance (Will Smith). Bagger offers his services as a caddy in exchange for just five dollars. Bagger is a mysterious force. He seems to be talking about golf, but the things he says sound suspiciously like life lessons at the same time. Junuh is stunned to discover that Bagger helps him hit the ball again. Eventually, he decides that he wants to play (and win) Adele's tournament. Doing so will mean confronting his own demons, including the fact that he deserted her.

As an occasional golfer, I am always struck by the magic of the game. Consider the hole-in-one. What are the odds that you can hit a tiny ball with a stick and have it land in a little hole 300 yards away? And yet it happens. There are golf pros who have never experienced this and relative novices who have had it happen more than once. As much as it takes skill and practice, golf is also a game of chance, luck, and fate. Just like life. The Legend of Bagger Vance draws many parallels between the two.

The movie also has a mythic quality that I really like. Bagger is not unlike Shoeless Joe in Field of Dreams; he comes out of nowhere and makes an impact on the hero's life. Junuh is a man lost. He's shed all sense of self-respect, choosing instead to drink away his memories of a better life. Only when he encounters this stranger is he able to view things from a different perspective. Sometimes, Bagger's advice is a little cryptic, but it works. Junuh regains his ability to believe in himself. I'm sure there will be a few cynical audience members who'll snicker over the movie's dreamlike qualities. For me, the story is an inspiring vision of how faith can help you turn your life around.

Damon does a superb job showing the change his character goes through. Although an unlikely combination, he and Will Smith have a potent chemistry together. Smith, in a marvelous performance of subtlety and restraint, proves that he's more than a star: he's an actor of great skill. And while the cast is mostly male, Charlize Theron makes an indelible impression as Adele. She creates such a vivid portrait of this determined woman that she more than holds her own against the guys.

The Legend of Bagger Vance was directed by Robert Redford with a grace uncommon to big-star Hollywood movies. He keeps the focus centered on the personal revelations rather than the sport. The story culminates with the final hole of that golf tournament. Redford is savvy enough to realize that if Junuh is victorious, he is winning more than just a golf game. He's winning back his life.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Legend of Bagger Vance is rated PG-13 for some sexual content. The running time is 2 hours and 7 minutes.
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