Here’s the plot: Rannulph Junuh (Damon) is the golden boy of pre-World War I Savannah, Ga. He is the best golfer in the South and earns the admiration of all and the love of Adele Invergordon (Theron), the most desired belle in town. Everything is hunky-dory until war comes, and Junuh has to lead the men of Savannah into battle.
Throw in a few generic battle shots, and Junuh’s life changes in a heartbeat. Though he survives the war, Junuh returns home a different man. He no longer wants to see Adele. He cannot face the people of Savannah. But most important, he stops playing golf because he has lost his “authentic” swing.
The film is told partly through Junuh’s eyes and partly through the eyes of a little boy, Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief), who is Junuh’s biggest fan. Pointlessly, the film is a series of disjointed flashbacks as remembered by a grown-up Hardy Greaves.
Meanwhile Adele’s father has built a perfect golf course, but goes bankrupt in the process. A group of angry little creditors in black suits and spectacles want Adele to sell the course. Her solution is a grand tournament with the country’s two best golfers competing for $10,000. But the city fathers won’t agree to the tournament unless a local lad can compete to redeem Savannah’s pride. Who else but the now alcoholic Junuh? A brilliant, original plot line, really: a sports movie where everything depends on one final game.
But Redford has one more trick up his sleeve: yet another quality actor in a worthless role. Will Smith plays Bagger Vance, literally a caddy sent from above. Bagger Vance appears out of the mist one night to help Junuh get his “authentic” swing-and his life- back. Of course, “The Legend of Bagger Vance” would not be a typical sports movie if the golf advice given by Bagger were not metaphors for life: “I always felt a man’s grip on his club was just like a man’s grip on his world.”
To sum it up, “The Legend of Bagger Vance” is a buddy movie with a black guy and a white guy. The hero must overcome bad memories and alcohol to get his girl back. A cute little boy provides inspiration for the unmotivated hero. And we have bad guys who desperately want to get their greedy hands on the sweet heroine’s prized possession. Redford, then, has created a neat little game for himself: to see if he can still make an enjoyable movie despite the obstacles he created.
For the most part, Redford succeeds. The almost too-pretty scenes on the perfectly manicured golf course and the wood-paneled interiors of the country estates provide a happy backdrop for a quaint movie. Damon and Smith are likable despite their contrived roles, and Theron makes a lovely southern belle. Redford has created a cute bedtime story-a fable about hope and redemption. Just don’t expect to see anything new.