A magical caddy helps a World War I vet get his groove…er, swing, back.
Robert Redford, 2000
When the Depression hits the South, society girl Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron) decides to put on a golf tournament to save her father’s green. She signs up the two most famous golfers in the country to play and bring attention and money to her green: sleazy Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill) and intelligent Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch). However, the locals want one of their own to play. The only problem is that the promising young golfer (and Adele’s ex-beau) Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon) became something of a hermit after returning from WWI with PTSD. Young golf fan Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief as a child, Jack Lemmon as an adult/the narrator) convinces Junuh to play, with some help from a mysterious caddy who appears out of nowhere one night with advice for Junuh. The caddy, Bagger Vance (Will Smith), works with Hardy to help Junuh rediscover his identity and his passion for the game.
Legend of Bagger Vance is a Robert Redford film, a light and gentle affair without much substance. It’s a weak script, without enough story to actually fill the film’s run-time and entirely too reliant on a lot of nonsense. The magical stuff detracts from the film’s more serious themes, and the mystical mumbo-jumbo slides by on Will Smith’s charisma alone. And charisma is one thing this film isn’t short on, what with Smith, Matt Damon, and Charlize Theron filling the key roles. Damon and Theron have an effortless chemistry, and Theron in particular looks completely at home in the 1920s garb. In spite of looking about 12 in the movie (he was 30, but he still looks so goddamn young with that floppy hair), Matt Damon balances the trauma of Junuh’s past with the bright tone of the film, his smile shining through all the brighter for its rarity. The trio of actors manage to elevate the script, with some solid support. Both J Michael Moncrief and Jack Lemmon do a great job as Hardy. Moncrief, for whom Bagger Vance is his sole credit, is all eyes and thick accent as the younger Hardy, while Jack Lemmon’s narration keeps the movie bubbling along.
The movie looks nice, using its lush Southern location to its advantage. There’s a lovely gauzy light over the whole thing, and the costumes are fantastic. The names in this movie are great, too. It all works together to provide a sense of place and time, a gorgeous evocation of the period. But it ignores the genuine problems of the period – the depression is breezed past, for instance. It causes some tension between the boy and his father, but the struggles the family would have gone through in terms of meeting basic needs are totally ignored. And then there’s the race issue. I guess any actual investigation of Bagger’s servitude to Junuh would break the film’s optimistic mood, but Bagger Vance is one of the worst invocations of the Magical Negro trope that’s ever been filmed (and not played by Morgan Freeman). While Bagger is most definitely the one in control in all his scenes, the lack of racism towards him and the lack of discussion of how Black people in the South were actually treated at the time rings false. There are also almost no women in this film aside from the effervescent Adele. Overall, it’s a sweet but slight film, unlikely to leave its mark.
The Legend of Bagger Vance on IMDb