When Roy Hobbs was young he had a very promising career in baseball ahead of him and the heart of a beautiful girl back home. However, one mistake had dire consequences that took his life in a different direction. Sixteen years later, Roy still has a passion for the game he ran away from, so despite being much older than the other players he joins a failing team, with the aim to finally make his name worth remembering. Oh, and also he might be magic.
Todd over at Forgotten Films – a regular guest on the Lambcast and host of the Forgotten Filmcast upon which I was fortunate enough to guest recently – is holding a blogathon covering films dedicated to his favourite sport – baseball. When he asked me I jumped at the chance to take part, and fortunately there’s at least a couple of films on the 1001 List that fit the bill, from which I selected The Natural. However, and I really must apologise to Todd for saying this, but I didn’t really love this movie.
A film’s inclusion on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list comes pre-packaged with a level of expectation that within the film at hand there will lie some sort of reason for its inclusion. Unfortunately I found no such aspect within The Natural. That’s not to say this is necessarily a bad film – in fact it was quite enjoyable – I just fail to understand why it has been deemed essential viewing. I think the main reasons for this are that the film is utterly riddled with elements that have now become over-used and trite cliches, and the story is disjointed, taking a lot of turns that ultimately don’t lead anywhere.One of the earliest scenes of the film shows Hobbs as a boy, playing ball with his father, who quickly realises his son has something of a gift for the sport. However, to ensure his son has a prosperous future, Hobbs’ father instructs the boy to keep practicing and not rely solely on his gift, else he’ll squander it and will ultimately fail. This scene feels very important, and I’ve watched enough films to know that this kind of father-to-son speech (and one immediately preceding the father’s untimely but far-from-unexpected death) will of course come back to mean something significant later in the film. I was looking forward to a parable of a kid who didn’t keep exercising his baseball muscles until he eventually learned that hard work pays off – something I hoped to learn something from (I used to be something of a maths-whizz, but alas am not any more). This, of course, never happened. Or at least it was never referred to again. Copy and paste this description for the much-hinted at possibility that Hobbs – or at least the baseball bat he personally hand-carved from the lightning-split tree at whose roots his father died – possesses some kind of magical ability to hit whatever kind of swing he wishes. At one point he’s instructed – jokingly – to hit the cover off the ball, which he miraculously succeeds in doing, sending an unspooling bundle of threads out across the diamond. The only possible answer is that Hobbs – or his bat, Wonder Boy – is magical, and yet this is never fully resolved or explained, merely forgotten.Elsewhere, some parts of the story don’t make sense logically, and only exist to create tension within it. The older Hobbs (Robert Redford) is transferred to a new team, the New York Knights, managed by Pop (Wilford Brimley). However, this decision was made without Pop’s consent, so out of spite he refuses to play Hobbs, despite being told how good the guy is. Pop never even lets him try out. This would be borderline acceptable, were it not for the fact that the Knights seemed to be pretty terrible baseball players, meaning Pop – who, it turns out, had a lot riding on the success of the team – would rather let them lose every game they play than even consider letting this vouched-for great player pick up a bat. The worst thing that could happen is the team still loses. Madness. Infuriating madness. Add to that a side plot involving Hobbs old flame Iris (Glenn Close) that threatens to derail the rest of the film and the aforementioned dugout-load of cliches – particularly in the final climactic game, which may as well be a parody of baseball movies – and you’ve got a film that really has me questioning the logic behind its placing on the List.However, as I mentioned, this isn’t by and large a bad film. The supporting cast is great, in terms of both the characters drawn and the actors portraying them. Robert Duvall is a particular highlight as sports reporter Max Mercy, although I believe he was over-cast in a relatively minor role, especially when you consider this came out the year he won his Oscar for Tender Mercies, and after he’d already received three prior acting nominations. I expected him to play a much larger and more pivotal role in the film, but alas it was not to be. I really liked the character of The Judge (Robert Prosky), the owlish owner of the team who resides in a darkened office overlooking the field. He was one of a number of villainous characters that made an impression, which is something this film did very well. Whether it’s Michael Madsen and Mike Starr’s brief appearances as fellow players Bump Bailey and Boone or Joe Don Baker’s scene-stealing best-there-is player The Whammer, there are plenty of stellar actors who make a lasting impression with very little screen time.Robert Redford is also great as the lead, convincing as both the naive, eager young rookie – I love how easily distracted he was by a liquorice stand in the airport – and the more world-weary but still bright-eyed player he becomes. Granted, a 48-year old Redford was a little old to be playing 35, let alone 19, but I’ll let it slide. I can’t say the same thing about Kim Basinger as Memo, the ridiculously named ringer brought in to seduce Hobbs off his game. She wasn’t terrible, but neither her nor Close shone enough to leave a mark.Director Barry Levinson took a leaf out of Terrence Malick’s book when it came to cinematography, opting to shoot most of the non-game footage at the golden hour, mere moments before sunset. In fact at one point Duvall’s Mercy even points out how close they are to the Sun going down. It all looked beautiful, but the same lighting style grew tiresome after a while. Its best use by a long shot though was the first time Hobbs sees Iris at a game, when she stands up in moral support, and the light shines through her hat to create a gauzy, hazy, angelic halo over Close’s head, offset against a sea of otherwise drab colours and faces. It’s not exactly a subtle film, but sometimes it works.This film isn’t for me. It’s for the people who believe in the American dream, who understand and appreciate the position sport plays in society, and who can listen to a rousing speech without cynically rolling their eyes. Sometimes I wish I was that kind of person, because I really wanted to like this film. It’s got a lot of heart, character and love for the sport it details, but I just couldn’t get past the inconsistencies in the plot and the overall cheesiness of the story. I suppose it doesn’t help that many sports films since have copied many of the elements here, but I generally find I can appreciate films for being the first to do something. Just not when they’re about sports, apparently. I will admit though, I got a certain thrill from the crack of the bat when Roy was in the batting cages. I don’t know why, but there’s just something about that noise that sparks something inside of me.
Choose life 7/10