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The Legend of Bagger Vance

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Count me in the minority, but the game of golf — if correctly played — can be an enigmatic treat. A soothing way to kill a Saturday and soak in a little peace of mind. Robert Redford's "The Legend of Bagger Vance" (IMDb listing) is a light tale suggesting golf as a metaphor for life. I'm inclined to believe it.

As a director, Robert Redford has quite a track record for slowly paced films. From his home run of a debut "Ordinary People," to his overtly-symbolic "Quiz Show," Redford has always been in love with a carefully told story and a languid pace. "Bagger Vance" has a lot in common to Redford's 1992 triumph "A River Runs Through It." Both are loving tributes to nature, and the mysterious ways we interact with contests. In "River," it was fly fishing, in "Bagger" it's golf.

Matt Damon stars as Rannulph Junuh, a down-on-his-luck golf legend who has lost his focus on the game of golf. When the Depression rolls into the town of Savannah, GA, a local golf course inheritor (Charlize Theron) stages a desperate match with local-legend Rannulph and the two greatest players in America. Haunted by his disastrous memories of World War I, Rannulph is visited by a mystical caddie named Bagger Vance (Will Smith) who tries to remind the former champ what the game once represented to him.

Scripted by Jeremy Leven, from a book by Steven Pressfield, "Bagger Vance" feels like half a movie. The golf scenes seem intact. They take up the second half of the film and create a reasonable amount of tension (depending on your tolerance for the game). However, the character development is a little thin. There isn't much to the Bagger Vance character, leaving Redford to rely on Will Smith's charm — something that should be cracked open only in case of emergency. Rannulph's journey is also a bit fuzzy. Damon is a talented actor, but sometimes the character slips away from him due to the gaps in writing.

"Bagger Vance" is one gorgeous film. Breathtakingly shot by Michael Ballhaus, you've never seen 18 holes quite like this. Backlit by the most golden Savannah sunsets, "Bagger Vance" has an almost otherworldly look to it. I'm sure this was Redford's intent, but the photography alone sells the mystical elements a lot more than the script ever does. Working with the camera moves, Rachel Portman's score lifts the film to the level it needs to be at, providing solid background filler and recurring warm themes that I kept looking forward to hearing.

There is little surprise to say that Matt Damon is good in the lead role, but it is a surprise to say that Will Smith seems incredibly flat in the title role. A jovial actor who is always bigger than life, Smith is woefully miscast in the small role of the caddie-who-may-be-God. His role as comic relief doesn't result in many laughs, and his esoteric powers lie more along the lines of a "You can do it!" type support. Charlize Theron keeps growing as an actress from role to role, and "Bagger" provides her best work yet. She's still prone to overacting, but this can only fade with time.

If you can stay awake, it's possible to fall in love with "Bagger." This a slow movie about golf — not the biggest endorsement for mass entertainment out there. Still, if you stay with Redford's vision, "Bagger Vance" will reward you with a truly respectful tale about the links and what they represent in life.

Filmfodder Grade: B

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