I probably only watched this because it was mocked by Ben Affleck in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back. I’m weird that way. I think it’s a case for a novel that should have stayed as a book, probably a good book at that, that didn’t translate to the big screen very well.
Ranulph Junuh (Matt Damon), is a bizarrely named southern man who was a great young golfer, was on top of the world for a short while, wooed Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron) and then went to fight in the first World War, an event that changed him, such that he couldn’t cope with the horror he had seen and didn’t want to come back to the world he had known.
Adele, who knows nothing of what happened, has to see her father killing himself after he has built a palatial hotel and golf course, shortly before the Depression. She decides that the only way to save them is to hold an exhibition match between the two top golfers at the time but the town only agrees if the recently returned Junuh plays as well. Junuh refuses, even after being asked by Adele, who is angry with him for the way things turned out, but is persuaded by the mysterious figure of Bagger Vance (Will Smith) who turns up out of nowhere to be his caddy.
Junuh nearly runs away, but the people of Savannah cheer him when they see him and he is shamed to play in the tournament. Which he does. Badly. In the first round of four, he his way behind the lead, with Bagger chiding him gently at every turn. At the end of the day, he tells Junuh that it is time to start playing properly, albeit in his unusual manner. The next day, in a nice transformation moment, where the mentor helps the troubled student find himself, with the sound of Smith’s voice over a CGI shift where everyone else phases out of his perception to be left on his own with the game he loves and finds himself, Junuh gets his game back and he starts catching up with the leaders, much to the happiness of the Savannah people. This surge in confidence allows him to talk with Adele after all this time.
He gets level with the two champions but gets cocky in his belief, causing him to lose his game and end up in the forest. He is about to give up when Bagger tells him to let it go, referring to the war (while bizarrely hinting at the same time that Bagger might possibly be God, or Jesus). He tells him to let it all go and to play his game the way he was supposed to. Junuh is able to believe in himself again and makes the shot, leading to a climax on the final hole in the dark, with the townspeople bringing their cars to provide lighting.
Junuh notices his ball roll back; he knows in himself that he has to call it as a penalty, even though his young caddy helper begs him not to. With Junuh believing in the game and himself like this, Bagger Vance realises that his job is done, and he leaves before the end of the game with the five dollars he was promised, win or lose, at the beginning. Junuh can’t believe it but accepts it and watches Bagger leave. He putts an impossible final shot to draw with the two leaders to provide a satisfactory ending, with he and Adele finally marrying as they should be. The final shot is of the grown-up narrator on the golf course where he had his fifth heart attack and the flashback to this tale, getting up and wandering up the fairway, the shadow of Bagger waiting for him in the distance…
There is a nice little story in here, of the search for one’s true self, believing in yourself and finding your place in the world, but it struggles to place that in a visual storytelling medium. It is a much more internal adventure, more suited to the intimacy of a novel than the expansion of a two-hour film. The actors do a good job and Redford makes the South a beautiful place but there isn’t much to engage an audience over the running time and doesn’t compare favourably to the most recent good golf film, Tin Cup.