- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2000

One and 1/2 out of four stars

TITLE: "The Legend of Bagger Vance"

RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting profanity and images of World War I combat; allusions to alcoholism; an episode in which a child witnesses a sexually suggestive encounter)

CREDITS: Directed by Robert Redford

RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes

''The Legend of Bagger Vance" arouses nostalgia for "Happy Gilmore," the most satisfying golf movie ever made.

Part of the competitive problem for "Bagger Vance," a fond but tedious example of inspirational allegory with a sporting format, is that the farcical playfulness and dynamism of a "Happy Gilmore" do more to flatter the sport they have in common.

Even when it is being lampooned systematically, golf seems a more attractive pastime after an Adam Sandler going-over than a Robert Redford cuddle.

Set for the most part in a genteel Savannah, Ga., in 1930, "Bagger Vance" fails to make a case for the rehabilitation of a wayward, disillusioned native son with a perplexing name, Rannulph Junuh, which suggests a garbled version of maybe "John Randolph."

Junuh (Matt Damon) was once the golden boy of Savannah, engaged to a belle named Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron), not exactly a euphonious appellation in its own right. Come to think of it, nothing about Adele seems to authenticate Southern charm or romantic vulnerability.

This is an unflattering showcase for the dishy Miss Theron, who sounds awkward with her fake Southern accent and appears rather brawny in several shots.

Junuh departed for World War I as Savannah's pride and joy. Trench warfare clouded his sunny temperament, leaving a premature cynic and alcoholic in its wake.

Secluded at the old family mansion, Junuh is lured out of his self-pitying impasse when Adele, completing a project begun by her late father, opens a new resort. With a touch of deceit, she promotes an exhibition match between the two greatest golfers of the period, Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill).

Popular demand for a local challenger at this grand-opening event leads the town back to Junuh, a golf prodigy in his glittering youth.

His game is so rusty that he falls 12 strokes behind in the first round. Improbably, enough time remains for an astonishing turnaround in the succeeding rounds.

Townspeople, old flame Adele, a hero-worshipping young caddie named Hardy (J. Michael Moncrief) and a mysterious guru called Bagger Vance (Will Smith) rally around the prospect of a fabulous comeback and redemption.

"Bagger Vance" isn't too far removed from the period of a durably enjoyable Redford movie, "The Natural." As a director, he endeavors to evoke a similar kind of sentimental tenderness and pictorial rapture in the new film, comparably infatuated with Americana and tenacious athletic comebacks.

The ingredients that jelled under Barry Levinson's direction of "The Natural" and within Caleb Deschanel's lighting schemes remain balky for Mr. Redford and his cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus.

An aura of mythic and mystical enchantment keeps beckoning them toward deflating platitudes and cross-eyed rather than star-crossed romance.

Mr. Smith's humor and energy are wasted by confining him to a stand-around guardian angel's role, with oracular wisdom borrowed from the Gospel according to the Jedi.

Miss Theron is wasted by being portrayed as a lovelorn ninny who has waited 15 years for Mr. Damon to come to his senses.

The juvenile newcomer, J. Michael, looks and sounds more authentic than anyone else in the movie, and he has two lovely scenes, one carrying news of the tournament to Mr. Damon and another expressing his love for golf.

Mr. Damon also is promising when first encountered as the seedy but approachable Junuh. There's a sullen humor and glamour about Junuh at this stage that the movie loses when tidying him up for salvation. The dilemma is expressed all too glibly at one point: "He has no choice but to come to terms with his demons." As depicted, this struggle proves more laborious than liberating.

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