A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 398 – The Natural

The Natural – April 2nd, 2011

I’m going to say this up front so there’s no beating around the bush: I don’t enjoy baseball as a game. I find it interesting as a cultural phenomenon, but well, I don’t watch it and I haven’t ever really felt a desire to. It’s slow and I don’t find it particularly engrossing, the same way other people would probably find my favorite video games boring. Different tastes for different folks. So when I watch a movie that has baseball as its foundation, well, it’s got to have something to draw me in other than the game. Oddly enough, a few months back Andy (who also does not watch baseball or particularly enjoy it) decided we should get some baseball movies. So we got this, which I had never seen, and three others that I had. I could have dealt without this one.

I know, I’m a horrible person for saying so. I mean, this is a classic, right? The score is iconic, as are more than a few shots and moments in the movie. It’s Robert Redford and Barry Levinson! How can I not be entranced by this movie! But I’m not. It’s not bad. I didn’t dislike it. But it just didn’t capture me. Even looking at it from an allegorical perspective, pulling in meaning from the talk about Homer and making connections with mythology as well as Arthurian legend didn’t really do it for me. I mean, I like those things, but the allegory here is using baseball as its vehicle. The appeal of allegory is to present one story in the guise of another. What would be the point if the guise wasn’t as interesting as the original? It’s not like we’re talking religious stories that need to be communicated in a time of censorship here.

It’s a bit of a blunt instrument, to be honest. Set in 1939, it’s the story of the meteoric rise of a baseball player, Roy Hobbs. We get a little backstory, seeing how he grew up being taught how to play by his father. We watch him make his own bat. We see him head to the city to play ball and meet up with a mysterious woman who later shoots him for no reason that the movie sees fit to explain (it’s hinted that she was responsible for a string of athlete shootings but the movie doesn’t bother to elaborate). And then we pick back up with him in his 30s, over the hill and starting out as a rookie with the down-on-their-luck Knights. Everyone thinks he’s just a benchwarmer, sent in to ruin the team even more thanks to some shady dealings with the majority shareholder, the sinister Judge. But of course he’s not. He’s amazing. He’s downright magical.

The rest of the movie plays out fairly predictably. I won’t say that’s a bad thing, because it’s using some well known tropes and that just means it’s been put together by people who know how to build a story. But it does mean that I felt very little in the way of tension. As soon as Roy meets femme fatale Memo? I knew he’d start striking out. As soon as his old sweetheart, Iris, showed up to give him moral support from the stands? I knew he’d start doing better. When she said she had a son? Come on. Did anyone need a reveal there? From the moment we meet the Judge in his darkened room it’s a sure thing that someone’s going to either try and take Roy out (again) or get him to throw a game. This is not a movie full of unexpected twists and turns. It tells you everything that’s going on, plain as day.

Fortunately, it’s well acted and well shot. Visually, it’s a lovely movie. And I did enjoy Robert Redford’s performance. He gets the vast majority of screen time. I wish I could say more about the women in the movie, but they’re all fairly one-dimensional, which I found thoroughly disappointing. I would have liked a little more than a villain in black, a sweetheart in white and a temptress who flips back and forth and I would have liked some more well-developed parts for Barbara Hershey, Glenn Close and Kim Basinger. I also would have liked things to move a little faster. As it is, the movie plays out much in the way I’ve always seen baseball itself. A whole lot of standing around, punctuated by some actual playing every so often. It felt like this movie took hours and hours and hours to play out. Sure, there were moments I enjoyed and I appreciated the cinematography and the acting and definitely the score. But overall it just didn’t speak to me.

April 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Natural

April 2, 2011

The Natural

For the start of the baseball season we’ve decided to watch some baseball movies. Amanda and I are not sports fans. We never watch sports games or root for any of the local sports teams. We do, however, own a few Baseball movies. I’m not altogether sure why. I suppose it’s just a simple game, and it has a certain charm to it. There’s a fun, corny, American joy to a good baseball movie. This, here, is the corniest, simplest, most quintessentially American of all baseball movies. From the slow-motion scenes of young Roy Hobbs catching baseballs in an undulating field of wheat to Randy Newman’s iconic score this movie lets you know just exactly what it is.

Amanda had never seen this movie before tonight and she wasn’t really into it tonight. The movie is too slow for her. On the other hand, there are so many infamous moments in this film – maybe after tonight she’ll get some of the references to this film in pop culture, from the Simpsons to the constant use of the score in previews to this very day.

I’ll agree with Amanda that the movie is slow. Nor is it particularly subtle. Barry Levinson directs the movie with all the gentle subtlety of a sledgehammer. It features things like having the evil Judge ensconced in his dark office or Glenn Close as Iris standing in a crowd with her translucent white hat basked in soft light. This is a simple movie about good and evil that wears its heart on its sleeve.

Roy Hobbs is The Natural. He’s a simple farm boy who in his youth was the greatest pitcher who ever lived. He could have been the greatest baseball player of all time, but a serial killer shot him way back when and he was unable to play ball. For years. Until one day he shows up in the bullpen of a struggling major league team. He’s over the hill at this point. A mid-thirty year old rookie that everybody, including the crooked scout who sent him up to the big leagues, thinks is a joke.

Of course when he finally gets up to bat it becomes clear that he is not a joke. He is a born ball player who lives only for the game. He’s an upright fellow who just wants to play ball, and he finds himself embroiled in an epic clash between good and evil. On the side of good there’s that kind-hearted codger who I know best as Noah from the second Ewok movie but everybody else knows from Cocoon or from the old Quaker Oats commercials. Wilford Brimley is Pops, the fairly ineffectual but completely affable manager of the New York Knights. His right hand man, Red, played by Richard Farnsworth, explains to Roy that Pops has put his heart and soul into the game, but he’s had to sell a controlling share of the Knights to a sinister man known only as the Judge. There’s a way out though. If the Knights win the pennant (which is some kind of base ball thing I guess) then Pops gets his shares back and the Judge is out. So of course the Judge is doing everything in his power to ruin the Knights. He is paying players left and right to throw games. He has a crooked newspaper man who digs up dirt for blackmail. He’s in cahoots with a nasty bookie (played with mad-eyed flare by an un-credited Darren McGavin.) There’s even a social-climbing femme fatal who has a bit of a crush on Roy but is trying to seduce him into losing.

To combat all the temptations thrown in Roy’s way there is his long-lost childhood girlfriend Iris, played in constant soft focus and awash in white light by Glenn Close, who simply by her presence inspires him to reach for his boyhood dreams of baseball superstardom. Sadly she doesn’t have much to do besides look wistful, but she’s very good at it.

It’s a simple fairy story about temptation, good versus evil, and striving against odds to achieve your dreams. It has a mytical, legendary feel to it, which is why I don’t particularly mind that it is so blatant in its direction or so over-the-top in its rousing conclusion. Robert Redford, who was fifty-one years old when the movie came out, plays Roy with both a world weary sense of fatality and a youthful wistfulness. His craggy visage clearly shows a character with a tortured past, but here he is re-discovering his true purpose in life and accepting his destiny.

This movie is iconic. Sure it’s slow. Sure it’s corny. Sure it drives its message home with brutal force. But, oh that score, and oh those visuals. Sometimes you need a simple tale like this. It was a pleasure to watch it again tonight.

April 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 2 Comments