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Movie Review

The Legend of Bagger Vance finds the meaning of life in a little white ball. Its conclusions are balanced, but the setup is a bit shaky, sometimes feeling haphazard and lopsided. In 1916, a young Rannulph Junuh wields a mean driver, using his magnificent golf skills to captivate America’s budding sports world and win the undying adoration of his hometown, Savannah, Ga. Then WWI sends him overseas. He survives, but what he sees and experiences sends him into an emotional tailspin. He’s unable even to face the hero’s welcome sure to await him in Savannah, so he just disappears. His beautiful girlfriend, Adele, meanwhile, suffers through his absence and the suicide death of her father. Even though the great depression is now in full swing, she vows to never sell her father’s greatest achievement, a luxurious golf course and country club. To save it, she initiates an exhibition tournament between two of the country’s greatest golfers, Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones. That’s where Junuh comes back into the story. She needs him to fill out the scorecard as the local celebrity. He doesn’t want to at first, but gives in rather quickly. Bagger Vance appears (magically) out of nowhere to be his caddie and coach, and teach him all the life lessons that golf can possibly teach.

positive elements: Those lessons include honesty, fairness, serenity, peace and determination. The tournament has come down to the wire, and playing by the rules may well cost him the game, but Junuh refuses to compromise. He won’t cheat even when an easy opportunity presents itself. Bagger gradually shows him how to overcome adversity and emerge from the shadows of his own private torture. He uses the disciplines of golf to get his message across. Hard work, even if it is "beneath one’s dignity" is lauded (the depression-era setting lends itself well to communicating this virtue).

spiritual content: None.

sexual content: Early on, it is implied that Junuh and Adele’s on-screen kissing leads to sex. Later, Adele strips down to her camisole and offers to sleep with Junuh, hoping to lure him into accepting her invitation to compete in the tournament. Even worse, Hardy (a young boy of about 10) watches the whole exchange. After Adele leaves, Junuh tells Hardy that his "education" is over and he can go home. Hardy immediately brags to his friends that he watched Adele "strip down to her skivvies." Hagen is known for his womanizing. One scene shows him tapping a golf ball around his living room (a woman lying on the floor provides the "cup" with her cleavage).

violent content: Vignettes of WWI combat. When Adele’s father kills himself, a gunshot rings out and the camera lingers on his limp hand from which the weapon falls.

crude or profane language: Not much by today’s standards, but if one takes into account the film’s 1930s backdrop, Junuh cusses like a sailor. Two s-words and a handful of mild profanities cross his lips in the course of two hours. He also misuses the name of Jesus three or four times.

drug and alcohol content: Junuh drinks to excess in order to try and forget the experiences that haunt him from the war. Half-serious, half-joking, he tells Hardy that the last brain cells to get destroyed when you drink are the "memory cells." He and his friends drink, smoke and play poker. Hagen smokes while he plays in the tournament.

conclusion: In this age of quick cuts, roiling action, fast zooms and hand-held cameras, it’s a relief to sit and watch a movie that takes its time. Director Robert Redford makes sure the scenes linger as the screen fills with expansive green fields and the unbroken luster of languid southern afternoons. And you don’t have to be a golf fan to enjoy the mood.

It’s also nice every once in a while to see life boiled down to such a simple essence. You know it doesn’t last and won’t translate well to the real world (not to mention the golf course), but at least you are touched with a moment of inspiration. You’re given a visual handle on how to better travel from the shadows into the sunlight. That’s all a bit esoteric, but The Legend of Bagger Vance only works if you take the time to step back a bit, relax and forget about how busy the rest of your life is. And isn’t that why movies were created in the first place?

At the risk of sounding stodgy, I do have one small quarrel with Junuh’s athletic performance. He comes out of a decade of "retirement" and obscurity to compete against the game’s top athletes without any training or practice. It’s sheer willpower and the subtle encouragement of Bagger Vance that reverts him—instantly—into the superstar that he was years earlier. I’m no expert, but I think Tiger Woods would take issue with the probability of such a thing. Top-level competitive sports (golf included) demand dedication, time, sweat and tears. Even "rags-to-riches" sports flicks like The Bad News Bears, The Mighty Ducks, Cool Runnings and The Replacements show their lackluster teams exert themselves at least a little bit before emerging at the top of the heap. One doesn’t just "visualize" the way to victory and glory.

Neither can one ignore the fact that this film isn’t as squeaky clean as it would have been had it been made during the time in which its story is set. Profanity and a couple of uncomfortable sexual interludes lay like sunken sand traps next to the green. And Bagger’s advice waxes mystical at times. "Everything that is becomes one," he breathes. "There’s a perfect shot out there trying to find each and every one of us. All we’ve got to do is get ourselves out of the way and let it choose us." So consider the hazards before hauling the family out for an evening of fun at the Bagger Vance country club.


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