Golfers, you know the feeling.
You're out on the tee on a bright, sunny afternoon. You envision yourself hitting the longest drive of your life. You rear back and swing with all of your might... but instead of rocketing off into the pristine blue sky, the ball shanks to the right and crashes into the trees.
You curse those damn Tiger Woods commercials and mutter to yourself, "Boy, do I suck at this game."
Ladies and gentlemen, if that's not a metaphor for life, I don't know what is.
And while we're on the subject of golf metaphors, let me turn your attention to The Legend of Bagger Vance, the latest directorial effort from Academy Award-winner Robert Redford. Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, it's the mystical story of a golfer in search of his swing and his soul, and the caddy who helps light the way. It doesn't take an English concentrator to find the metaphor in that. Of course, the trouble with metaphors is that you can only take them so far. After all, not everybody plays golf (in fact, most people probably couldn't tell you the difference between a birdie and a bogie); and in real life, none of us are engaged to Charlize Theron (though we can dream). Thankfully, moviegoers for the past century have succeeded in separating fantasy from reality without too much trouble, which makes the fantastical story of Bagger Vance a whole lot easier to swallow.
The story is narrated by an old man named Hardy Greaves, who was a boy when the legend of Bagger Vance first surfaced. Hardy grew up idolizing Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon '92), the pride of Savannah, Georgia who, prior to going off to war, was one of the most promising golfers in the South-as well as being engaged to the beautiful Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron), the daughter of a rich entrepeneur who owned the luxurious Krewe Island Golf Resort. All good things must come to an end, as Junuh's picture-perfect life is shattered by the horrors of World War I-an experience which leaves him emotionally devastated, spiritually devoid, and unable to play the game of golf. Upon returning home, he withdraws into isolation, afraid of dealing with any aspect of his former life.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to save her late father's resort from the turbulence of the Great Depression, Adele arranges a high-profile exhibition match between golfing legends Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen. When Junuh is convinced to take part in the event, he faces the dual task of rediscovering his game and confronting his past. In the middle of it all, a mysterious figure named Bagger Vance (Will Smith) appears on the scene and offers to help Junuh in his quest.
Robert Redford returns to his chair behind the camera and upholds his hard-earned reputation for translating strong, character-driven stories to the silver screen. His directing style is both simplistic and grand, utilizing an arsenal of sweeping camera angles to capture truly majestic shots. Redford also plays around with color schemes to create different moods throughout the film-the warm colors of the golf course convey a sense of oblivious joy, the blackness of nightfall reflects Junuh's inner turmoil and Bagger's emergence from the dark woods creates a sense of mystery. Through it all, Redford instills a sense of magic and mysticism that permeates all aspects of the production.
My only complaint? The "ball in flight" shots used during the golf scenes-in which the audience gets to see the perspective of the ball as it rockets down the fairway-are kind of cheesy. But that's a minor point. Who better to fill the classic "golden boy falls from grace" paradigm than Hollywood golden boy Matt Damon? He's already shown a knack for playing psychologically mucked-up characters in Good Will Hunting and The Talented Mr. Ripley, so the emotionally scarred Junuh isn't too much of a stretch. The character walks a fine line between brash confidence and paralyzing fear-and by making this confusion seem genuine, Damon succeeds in winning the audience's sympathy. What impresses me most about Damon, though, is his linguistic versatility. After all, not many actors can flip between a Bostonian accent and a Southern drawl with such apparent ease.
Most people (myself included) have always pegged Will Smith as a strictly comedic actor-so imagine my shock when he turned in one of the most powerful performances of the film. In his first real foray into the realm of drama, he successfully proved all the cynics wrong, putting his acting skills on display through his portrayal of the allegorical Bagger Vance. Blending an air of wisdom with a mischievious sense of humor, Bagger is easily the most fascinating character in the film, and Smith's performance is a pleasant surprise. As for the always-tantalizing Charlize Theron? She enhances the role of Adele by giving the character two distinct layers of complexity. At times, we see her clever, manipulative side, using her feminine sensibilities and Southern charm to manipulate the male characters around her. But when she interacts with Junuh, we see her nostalgic and vulnerable side, the part of her that was devastated when she was abandoned by the love of her life.
Rounding out the cast is newcomer J. Michael Moncrief in his big role-and the twelve-year-old more than holds his own in the company of his more famous co-stars, showing poise and ability beyond his years. On the other end of the age spectrum, the peerless Jack Lemmon '47 as the elderly Hardy is a wonderful touch.
The production notes insist that The Legend of Bagger Vance is not a golf movie. Sure, the focus on golf provides a neat metaphor for the struggles and rewards of life, and the character of Bagger himself is a walking metaphor-a caddy who helps a golfer find his way. But at its core, Bagger Vance is a serious exploration of the search for meaning in life (in other words, this ain't Tin Cup). Bagger says it best when he explains to Hardy that inside every person is something that belongs to him alone-an "authentic swing" which can't be found, only remembered. And that's what this film is all about. Call it a story about finding something that was lost. Call it a story of personal examination, of exorcising demons and confronting the ghosts of the past. Call it an old-fashioned love story-only with golfers, and an epiphany or two thrown in.
Or just call it a solid two under par.
LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE directed by Robert Redford starring Matt Damon Dreamworks