Although it's more often than not the exception rather than the rule - especially in today's world of crass commercialism and lowest common denominator programming - various forms of entertainment occasionally carry relevant messages of one sort or another embedded within them. Movies, like novels, are one of the best forms of doing so, and sports films seem to be the most prevalent at doing just that.
While some are too obvious and/or blatant in their approach at using some specific sport or game as a metaphor for life, others are more subtle and/or subdued in how they impart such a message. Of course, one's view of such metaphorical intent depends on their tolerance of being subjected to that sort of material as well as the filmmakers' approach and touch at delivering such messages.
If the viewer doesn't like being manipulated and the filmmakers are far too aggressive, then the effect is diminished or altogether squandered. If, on the other hand, the conditions are just right on both ends of the cinematic spectrum, such pictures can be entertaining, heartfelt and inspiring at the same time.
Based on Steven Pressfield's novel of the same name, Robert Redford's "The Legend of Bagger Vance" can't quite decide which approach to take. As a result, the somewhat muddled way in which it unfolds prevents it from being a great film, although it's certainly far from awful and does occasionally tug on the old heartstrings.
Part of that's because I'm a sucker for films that mix fantasy and reality in a sort of "Twilight Zone" type way. While Redford - who works from an adapted script by Jeremy Leven ("Don Juan DeMarco") - doesn't always get that mix just right - which successfully occurred in Phil Alden Robinson's "Field of Dreams" - and the symbolism for the fantasy elements is often too obvious and the "magical" quality too imbalanced, the film worked for me more often than not.
Redford ("The Horse Whisperer," "Quiz Show") has always had a knack for crafting films that are gorgeous to behold and take in, and this one's certainly no exception. From the gorgeous camera work courtesy of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus ("Broadcast News," "The Fabulous Baker Boys") to Judianna Makovsky's ("Pleasantville," "Great Expectations") costumes and from Stuart Craig's ("The English Patient," "Dangerous Liaisons") production design to the wonderful score by composer Rachel Portman ("The Cider House Rules"), the film is completely engaging to watch, even if the pacing is occasionally too slow and the momentum uneven.
Such superb technical work, along with an attractive cast and their mostly winning performances certainly make up for a story that - while filled with varying levels of magic and mysticism - isn't exactly a hypnotic page turner (to mix entertainment metaphors). As narrated by one of the film's characters - Jack Lemmon (the "Grumpy Old Men" films, TV's "Tuesdays With Morrie") doing the "once upon a time" bookend role - the picture delivers a lot of exposition that doesn't then lead to many surprises once the story gets underway.
Since we know that the protagonist - nicely played by Matt Damon ("The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Saving Private Ryan") in a performance that will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Redford in his younger days - is a troubled sort whose life is in disarray, and we know going in that sports films quite often deliver an "improve your life's situation by becoming one with the ball" type of message, there's little doubt about what will transpire once the titular character appears.
Although such inspirational moments here occasionally work on an emotional level and Will Smith ("Wild Wild West," "Enemy of the State") does a great, but uncharacteristically subdued job embodying the "messenger," it might have worked somewhat better had the character not so clearly been God, an angel or whatever other divine interloper he's supposed to be. While there's certainly nothing wrong with the character turning out to be some sort of spiritual guide, a more nebulous approach not only would have made the character more compelling and intriguing, but also would have done the same to the overall proceedings.
The way it unfolds here, we realize (or at least think we realize) that Smith's character is not an ordinary Joe, or Bagger in this case, while it takes the protagonist a long while to do so. Although some good laughs come from that - as Bagger adopts the "me not so smart" subterfuge that Yoda did in the "Star Wars" films - the picture would have been far more interesting had we never quite known whether he was the real thing or just a con man "behind the curtain."
It's certainly not a horrible fault, but had it played out with more uncertainty, it probably would have made the film more interesting and engaging. More troublesome is the fact that the film doesn't deviate too far from the typical sports film plotline, and that golf - notwithstanding the film, "Tin Cup," or the public's fascination with Tiger Woods- isn't usually that thrilling to watch on the silver screen. Of course, its "man versus himself" nature is symbolic of what occurs in the story, but the scenes here aren't likely to get too many people worked up about the finale.
Other problems include subplots that were either lifted from the novel and suffered from the transplantation or were created/enhanced specifically for this picture but weren't given enough time or substance to grow. Most notably is the love relationship between the characters played by Damon and Charlize Theron ("Reindeer Games," "The Cider House Rules"). While we believe the strained chemistry between the two, it seems unlikely that they wouldn't have resolved the status of their relationship in the intervening decade or so since he returned to live in the same city.
Had he moved somewhere else and then returned to Savannah for whatever reason at the beginning of the story, that may have worked, but as it stands here it isn't very credible and when we leave the film, we don't feel any greater sense of closure or resolution.
The subplot involving Grady - nicely played by J. Michael Moncrief (making his debut) and his father also feels shortchanged and then is mostly abandoned until a contrived "reunion" of sorts is forced on them and the audience members. Meanwhile, the one regarding Lane Smith ("My Cousin Vinny," TV's "Inherit the Wind") as a sportswriter doesn't inherently feel as abandoned, but it certainly seems like there was probably more related to him in the novel (or should have been if not) than appears here.
While they're not the main focus of the story and thus understandably don't get as much screen time as the central characters, the historically real ones played by Joel Gretsch ("Kate's Addiction," various TV shows) and Bruce McGill ("The Insider," "Rosewood"), come off as the most interesting, and many viewers - especially golf aficionados -- may wish that more screen time had been focused on them.
Overall, and unless you absolutely hate sentimental or mildly manipulative films that are designed to bring a tear to your eye, this film is certainly easy enough to sit through and when it clicks in certain scenes, it feels just right. It's just too bad that it doesn't do so throughout and that it suffers from other nagging, but certainly not debilitating problems. Decent, but not as good as many will probably be expecting or hoping for, "The Legend of Bagger Vance" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.