'Bagger Vance' is below par for the course

There are lots of reasons why "The Legend of Bagger Vance" should have been a good movie.

Matt Damon and Will Smith, who play the main characters, are interesting stars. Robert Redford (see interview), who directed it, is a Hollywood giant who's put much time and energy into supporting the independent-film movement and its new approaches to screen entertainment. And the story has a very good heart, using low-key suspense and romance to suggest that our lives are most enriched when we put principles and generosity ahead of our own selfish interests.

Unfortunately, there are also lots of reasons why "The Legend of Bagger Vance" hasn't turned out to be a good movie. The characters are cardboard figures instead of three-dimensional personalities. The camera work is more pretty than persuasive, like a two-hour parade of picture postcards. And the dialogue is dogged by cliches, with entire scenes sounding as if they were clipped from sentimental greeting cards.

How could Redford and company have miscalculated their material so badly? The answer may lie in the movie's title. "Legend" is an enticing word but a dangerous one, leading some artists to explore the realm of archetypes and ideals, but tempting others to replace the realities of human experience with generalities and platitudes. Jeremy Leven's screenplay does exactly this, turning a potentially uplifting tale into a sadly self-satisfied sermon.

Damon plays Rannulph Junuh, a young Southern golfer whose promising career is hobbled by World War I and the horrors he encounters there. Morose and cynical, he retreats into sin and self-indulgence until his former fiancee calls on him to play in a tournament she's organizing. He accepts this opportunity to renew his life, but his downward trajectory proves hard to reverse - until he meets Bagger Vance, a mysterious black caddy who cloaks wise words in a humble disposition. Little by little, Bagger's teachings reach the cynic's heart, leading him - and the movie - to a predictably happy finale.

There's nothing wrong with the basic thrust of Bagger's advice - he's like a club-carrying Yoda, doing a guardian angel's job with a court jester's flair -and few would argue with the movie's basic message about the value of honesty, integrity, and being true to your own best instincts. The trouble lies in its stereotypical style, its schmaltzy emotionalism, and its romanticized view of a white man's world in which it's taken for granted that even the most enlightened African-American must be a servant as well as a sage.

None of this means the movie won't be a hit, of course. Smith has a huge following, as do Damon and costar Charlize Theron, who are acquiring true Hollywood panache after their promising starts in the indie production scene. Viewers may like the picture's leisurely pace and general avoidance of trendy vulgarities. But this said, Redford's latest represents a lost opportunity. It aims only at our heartstrings and tear ducts, when it could have touched our minds and consciences.

Rated PG-13; contains a mild sex scene and occasional rude language.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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