Panned by critics, a failure at the box office and a film one of its stars, Matt Damon, doesn’t like to discuss, “The Legend of Bagger Vance” didn’t live up to the talented cast and crew for most.
I adore it.
The beautiful and ambiguous golf movie stars a trio that would turn heads today in Damon, Will Smith and Charlize Theron. Add cinema legend Robert Redford in the director’s chair and it should translate to success.
It didn’t, making short of $40 million against an $80 million production budget.
I never understood why. The plot, on its surface, is a little odd. Up-and-coming golfer Rannulph Junuh (Damon) dives into a life of seclusion after he is the only member of his battalion to survive an attack during World War I. In the process, he loses his golf swing.
He’s tasked with finding it as his former love interest Adele Invergordon (Theron) and the rest of Savannah, Georgia, recruit him to play in a golf exhibition against greats Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen for a $10,000 prize.
Mysterious caddie Bagger Vance (Smith) arrives to help him find his way.
I bought into the concept completely.
The audience never finds out exactly who Vance is, but it doesn’t matter. He is whoever each viewer interprets him to be. I’ve always seen Vance as a higher-power being because he seems to know Junuh’s life. He also appears to Junuh and then disappears. At the end of the film, he appears again and seems to welcome one of the characters into what’s possibly heaven.
Or maybe he really is just a random caddie. Maybe he’s Junuh’s inner self trying to help him get his life back on track. It’s fascinating to explore.
Set during The Great Depression, the movie centers on a golf tournament, but the sport serves as a metaphor for life. The filmmakers picked the perfect sport to represent life. I find golf incredibly frustrating, but I always hit one shot that makes me want to return to the course. Also, it’s important to take in the beauty of the course and nature, which can easily be overlooked when I top a ball into a swamp. My mom always stays positive saying even if she had a bad game, at least she got in a good walk.
Vance tells it best when he says golf is “a game that can’t be won, only played.”
Despite coming off “Wild Wild West,” which is seen as one of the worst films ever made, Smith is still a huge star in 2000 and shows why in “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”
He brings instant charisma and provides the most humor and the most powerful moments. His versatility shines as he can entrance the audience in a scene and make it laugh seconds later.
Vance enters the film out of the darkness where Junuh is hitting golf balls into the night. Junuh says, “I could’ve killed you out there.”
Vance: “Oh no, sir. You see I set myself directly in front you. Judgin’ by how you was hittin’ them balls, I figured that’s where I’d be out of harm’s way.”
I also enjoy when Junuh is in the midst of a horrid round, he turns to Vance and says, “This is becoming embarrassing.”
Vance: “Oh no, sir. It’s been embarrassing for quite some time now.”
Later, he explains “the field” and “authentic shot” and it really pulls the audience into the film.
Rookie of the Year
Charlize Theron has been one of the best in the business for years, but in 2000 the Oscar-winning actress (2003’s “Monster”) was still on the rise.
At 25 years of age, she commanded the screen despite sharing it with Smith and a young Matt Damon. Theron brings humor, emotion and strength, as she is able to manipulate Jones and Hagen to play in her golf tournament.
My favorite Theron scene comes after Junuh’s dreadful first round. Theron as Invergordon essentially tries to apologize to Junuh, but then blames him for humiliating himself.
She empowers the character impressively.
Jack Lemmon provides a great presence in limited screen time and serves as the narrator. He portrays the old Hardy Greaves in his last role before his death in 2001.
His scenes at the beginning and end beautifully bookend the film.
The voice throughout proves a welcoming sound, unlike the actor who plays the young Greaves. More on that later.
Academy Award winner Rachel Portman provides a gorgeous score that complements the film perfectly. She effortlessly changes tones from dramatic music to a more humorous tune. She captures the joy and hope that comes in triumphant moments or beautiful shots of nature.
Her composing is one of the first things that gripped me about “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”
I was never sold on J. Michael Moncrief, who plays the young Greaves. He’s supposed to be the heart of the film, but proves more annoying. The child actor overdoes it, which means he tried, but Redford needed to reel him in a little bit.
Also, Junuh is going up against two of the best golfers at the time and he is easily able to erase a 12-shot deficit after the first round.
One shining moment
Junuh squanders a small lead in the final round with some arrogant shots and even falls behind Jones and Hagen.
Junuh’s ensuing tee shot slices into the woods. He finds his ball, but the woods look eerily similar to where he lost his entire battalion during the war. His body starts trembling as he bends over to pick up his ball. That’s when Vance shows up to get Junuh over the post-traumatic stress and the guilt he feels.
He says we’ve all got burdens to carry, but he’s been carrying this one long enough and sees no reason he can’t become the person he was before the war.
Junuh: “It was too long ago.”
Vance gets his attention by quoting Invergordon, a conversation for which he wasn’t around.
Vance: “Oh no, sir. It was just a moment ago.”
The chords of the score swell.
When Junuh says he can’t, Vance challenges him saying, “Yes, you can. But you ain’t alone. I’m right here with you. I’ve been here all along.”
This is a brilliant callback to a scene where Junuh focuses so well that the fans fade away around him. However, Vance is the only person who never totally fades away. It also signals Vance has been with Junuh his entire life.
The emotional scene only improves as Vance says, “Strike that ball, Junuh. Don’t hold nothin’ back, give it everything.”
The score builds to the moment Junuh hits the ball through an opening in the trees and five feet from the cup. It’s almost as ridiculous as Bubba Watson’s shot during the 2012 Masters.
A few holes later, Vance leaves Junuh before the end of the tournament. Vance wasn’t there to help Junuh win. He was there to help him reclaim his life. He did that as Junuh left his guilt in the woods.