The Natural (1984)

19 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I love baseball. Who doesn’t? It’s a lot of fun to play and arguably even more fun to watch (yeah, I was never that good at the game, even when it was called “whiffleball” in P.E. class). Heck, it’s America’s pastime! You could show me a football game on TV or let me play in flag-football for fun, and I wouldn’t fully understand it. No, baseball is the sport I can easily get into. I mean, I’m not saying I collect baseball cards or even memorize statistics (or else I wouldn’t be much of a movie critic, would I?), but I really adore the sport itself. So when a movie that’s centered around a baseball player comes around, of course I hope that it gets everything right.

This is where “The Natural” comes in. This movie isn’t merely artistic and wonderfully acted. It’s also amazingly accurate about the game of baseball—not just in representation of what happens on the field, but also the spirit of the game. How can you not be excited when a character hits a home run in this movie? Or when the ball is mid-air, flying somewhat gracefully? That’s the spirit of the baseball game sequences in “The Natural.”

The movie is a fable that features a natural player named Roy Hobbs. As a young man, Roy played catch with his father and carved a wooden bat out of a fallen tree, dubbing the bat “Wonderboy.” As he gets older, he gets a chance to try out for a team in Chicago and even strikes out big-league ballplayer “The Whammer” in three pitches. It’s then that people see real talent in this person. Unfortunately, those people include a deranged woman who makes it her business to kill off “the best” in every sport.

Roy (Robert Redford) survives his encounter with the woman (Barbara Hershey), but it’s 16 years in oblivion before he finally appears as a thirty-something rookie. He signs up for the New York Knights, who can’t believe he’s on the team at his age. His manager Pop (Wilford Brumley) even states cynically that players his age retire rather than begin playing. Through half the season, Roy sits on the bench, but he eventually does make it into the starting lineup on the field and shows his skills. Everyone is impressed and amazed by him and want to find out more about him, for their own reasons.

It’s within the story of “The Natural” and the sport of baseball that these themes are represented—lighter ones like redemption, and darker ones like corruption, greed, and temptation. We have the redemptive tale of a man who steps out of nowhere after a deadly experience and uses baseball as the pathway to the right track. Within the darker themes, baseball brings about the joys (and dangers) of gambling, contracts, and fame. As the story progresses, Roy comes along corruptive characters like the Knights’ owner (known as the Judge, played by Robert Prosky) who will give Roy a long-term contract if he throws the next game, a sports writer named Max Mercy (Robert Duvall) who wants to know everything about this strange natural ballplayer, a gambler named Gus Sands (Darren McGavin) who manipulates Roy’s refusal to agree to anything dishonest, and his girl Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) who tempts Roy into all of their traps.

It’s Roy Hobbs who must make the right choices to make himself into a hero. But even if we know that Roy will aim to do the right thing, we wonder ourselves if the right thing is enough. It’s because of the writing by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry, based on the novel by Bernard Malamud, that the tension is there and we feel it in the scenes in which Roy must figure out what to do as he discovers he has something to prove.

Roy Hobbs is a great role model for young children—he’s not perfect, but an individual that shows character and principles as he sets out to fulfill his dreams. He’s played by Robert Redford in a believable, winning performance. He’s charming, but more importantly, he’s also convincing as a baseball player.

The movie has an outstanding supporting cast—Robert Duvall, Wilford Brumley, Kim Basinger, Robert Prosky, and Darren McGavin are all solid in their roles. There are two more important roles—Richard Farnsworth, just wonderful as the faithful bench coach Red, and Glenn Close, excellent as the angel-in-disguise: Roy’s old girlfriend Iris, a passive woman who dresses in white and wears a hat that represents a halo. Notice how she’s bathed in white light at Wrigley Field at the end of the movie. (I should also note that Barbara Hershey’s mysterious character is dressed entirely in black in her scenes, like a black widow spider about to attack her prey.)

But like I said, the very best element about “The Natural” is how well it accurately portrays baseball. This movie gets the feel just right in its ballgame sequences, and the final game is involving to say the least. The outcome is one of the most satisfying in any sports-movie big-game climax. Something it didn’t need was a heroic music score by Randy Newman, but I let it slide because it sounds great.

“The Natural” is one of the best sports films I’ve ever seen—a magical tale of the human element and a fable of a destined hero. Even if some cheesy moments and a few not-so-subtle touches (see two paragraphs above) seem a little “out there,” I enjoyed every minute of it.

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