You Ain't Got a Thing if You Ain't Got that Swing 

The Legend of Bagger Vance (PG-13)
Dream Works Pictures

Whether or not you like The Legend of Bagger Vance will probably depend upon your degree of Zen enlightenment. If, like the Buddha, you believe that every activity, no matter how humble, can lead you on the true path, if you can chop-wood-carry-water and find the great meaning in these humble tasks, well, maybe you'll like Bagger Vance.

Maybe. If you look hard, you may see true pathos in the returned WWI soldier Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), shell-shocked and traumatized when he returns home to Depression-era Savannah, Georgia where his former girlfriend Adele (Charlize Theron) is carrying out her dear departed daddy's critical mission to make the premier golf resort on a nearby island. Someone of your advanced status may find it charming that Junuh, a former golf champion, must save the day for Savannah by playing in a championship exhibition match against the country's best golfers, even though, among the traumas of his life, he has lost his golf swing -- quel horreur.

Equally poignant is the appearance of a mystical figure, Bagger Vance (Will Smith), who is part hobo, part Zen master, come to help the hometown hero find his mystical swing. And don't forget Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief), the young hero-worshipper who narrates the whole thing.

Indeed someone who is on the true path might find that even in the humble environs of golf, you can learn great lessons in life from a man who pastes on a faulty Southern accent to say such things as "you cain't win golf, you kin only play it," and "every man has an authentic swing and your job is to remember it." The beauty of the filming, and the fact that Robert Redford directed it, will only add to your delight.

If, however, you haven't recently memorized Zen for Dummies, Bagger Vance may hold considerably less charm. In your less-than-elevated state, you might find that the picture of a mysteriously integrated Depression-era Savannah, at the height of the worst spate of lynchings in U.S. history, is rather too rosy to be borne. All those lovely dresses, gorgeous hats and oh-so-cute knee-length men's trousers start to look a little precious in the face of the deep poverty and racism of the time. You also might find that Bagger Vance's "yassuh" and "no suh Mr. Junuh," in duet with Junuh's casual treatment of Bagger might rub you the wrong way, wondering what the Fresh Prince is doing suddenly playing Mr. Bojangles. He may be the wise man, but he's still the wise man who is cleaning the shoes.

If those things don't get you, you might still have to stifle a snicker at the swelling violins that crescendo as Junuh makes the crucial shots, or at the video-golf special effects that follow the ball across the sculpted terrain. This is golf-as-religion, golf-as-enlightenment, golf-as ... well, the game-of-privileged-white-guys-who-sometimes-mysteriously-have-black-guys-who-volunteer-to-help-them-make-it-to-the-top-where-they-belong-with-nary-a-thought-for-their-own-raggedy-states.

This is the cult of golf at its most banal, claiming that feeling the beat of earth, the pulse of the tides is really, as Bagger Vance proclaims, what you do when you cut work to drink beer and play nine holes on an over-manicured, herbicide-infected, hyper-irrigated piece of mother nature. I leave it to you to determine your level of so-called enlightenment, and thus whether Bagger Vance is your cup of, uh, tee.

Ah, the karma of it all.


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