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Par for the Old Course

In his polished 'Legend of Bagger Vance,' Robert Redford shows he's still a vintage-style--and tidy--movie maker.


No golf course in America is as carefully manicured as "The Legend of Bagger Vance." A highly polished genteel fantasy about the game of golf and its relation to, yes, the game of life, "Bagger Vance" is so meticulous in its craftsmanship and so earnest in its storytelling that it feels both physically and spiritually airbrushed.

Coming after "The Horse Whisperer" and "A River Runs Through It," "Bagger Vance" confirms producer-director Robert Redford as the most passionately old-fashioned of filmmakers, a determined classicist who likes his films to be so well-made even the cobwebs look buffed and polished.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, and "Bagger Vance" is not without virtues. But Redford's passion for tidiness extends to the story as well, which is such a smoothly rigged piece of business, as square and uplifting as a Sunday sermon, that there is nowhere compelling for it to go.

Fighting against this schematic quality is a mostly well-selected cast that brings a semblance of life to these self-satisfied proceedings. Matt Damon fits snugly into Rannulph Junuh, a tarnished golden boy like so many of Redford's heroes, and 12-year-old J. Michael Moncrief is winning as the child through whose eyes the tale is told. Better still is the completely charismatic Will Smith, who shows a more restrained but equally irresistible side of himself as the mysterious title character.

After a present-day framing device centering on an aging golfer (an unbilled Jack Lemmon), "Bagger Vance" recedes into the past, to a meticulously re-created Savannah, Ga., between 1916 and 1931 and a story told by boy narrator Hardy Greaves (Savannah native Moncrief, whose natural accent puts everyone else's store-bought versions to shame).

Young Hardy grows up idolizing fellow Savannian Junuh (Damon), on track to become perhaps America's greatest golfer before his shock at the carnage he witnesses during World War I turns him into his native city's most celebrated recluse, living a dissipated life in a derelict old house.

This is especially disconcerting to Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron, trying too hard), the daughter of the wealthiest man in Savannah and Junuh's now-abandoned prewar bride. (This is a predictable change from Steven Pressfield's novel, the basis of Jeremy Leven's script, which does without romance entirely.)

But Adele has other problems besides an absent husband. She's in serious financial trouble, needing money to save the failing Krewe Island Golf Resort her late father built just before the Great Depression. Nothing if not determined, she manages to set up an exhibition match between the two greatest golfers of the day, high-minded Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and the profligate Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill). When local businessmen insist a Savannah player be included, it's soon determined that Junuh, next door to a reprobate though he might be, is the man for the job.

Just about half of "Bagger Vance" follows that two-day, 72-hole contest (filmed at South Carolina's Kiawah Island, where a new 18th hole was built from scratch, the Colleton River Plantation in the same state, and Georgia's Jekyll Island Club Hotel). It's undeniably pleasant to see these re-creations of the legendary Jones and Hagen, played by golfing actors who put a lot of effort into duplicating their characters' styles. Those who believe golf deserves to be mythologized as "a game that can't be won, only played" are clearly this film's target audience.

Bagger himself may have said that, but if he didn't he certainly says a lot of other things. From the moment he materializes out of an evening's darkness and offers to caddy for a shaky Junuh for $5, win or lose, the man is never at a loss for a pithy comment.

Part Zen philosopher talking about "the place where everything that is becomes one," part golf whisperer advising "you can't make the ball go in the hole, you've got to let it," part one-man therapy group, Bagger has a knack for words that's especially noticeable in a movie where other people are reduced to saying things like "he couldn't whip a dead possum off a gunny sack" and "you've got the gumption of a corn fritter."

Master psychologist that he is, Bagger notices at once that, both physically and metaphysically, Junuh has lost his swing, a condition no doubt related to Billy Crystal losing his smile in "City Slickers." The search for it is enough to occupy the golfer, the town of Savannah and the film itself for the duration.

Just as the natural lift of Bagger's presence helps Junuh, Will Smith's moments consistently elevate the film. Though "Bagger Vance" is determined to lay on the sentiment thick as enamel paint (notice, as if you had a choice, the angelic choirs in Rachel Portman's score), Smith's easy charm has the power to dissolve a lot of it. He can't humanize the entire film, but he and the boy do their best.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some sexual content. Times guidelines: a small boy witnesses an attempted seduction.

'The Legend of Bagger Vance'

Will Smith: Bagger Vance

Matt Damon: Rannulph Junuh

Charlize Theron: Adele Invergordon

Bruce McGill: Walter Hagen

Joel Gretsch: Bobby Jones

J. Michael Moncrief: Hardy Greaves

DreamWorks Pictures and 20th Century Fox present a Wildwood/Allied production, released by DreamWorks Pictures. Director Robert Redford. Producers Robert Redford, Michael Nozik, Jake Eberts. Executive producer Karen Tenkhoff. Screenplay Jeremy Leven, based on the novel by Steven Pressfield. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Editor Hank Corwin. Costumes Judianna Makovsky. Music Rachel Portman. Production design Stuart Craig. Art director Angelo Graham. Set decorators Michael Seirton, Jim Erickson. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.

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