Thursday, December 16, 2010

Review: The Natural

As much as I love baseball I love the cinema more. I thought it would be a good idea to once a month write a review of a baseball movie just to shake things up. I've decided to start with a classic and my all-time favorite sports movie: The Natural.
(Sidenote: If you're also a fan of movies you may be interested in checking out my other blog at )
Plot: Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) is an amazingly gifted baseball player until a horrific incident derails a promising career. Years later Hobbs decides to give it one last shot at the majors and joins the hapless New York Knights, led by manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley). As Hobbs starts hitting, the Knights miraculously start winning. However, fame, an unscrupulous owner, and Roy's own past threaten to unravel his fledgling career and the Knight's chances at the pennant.
Review: The Natural is hands down my favorite sports movie of all-time. Nothing even comes close. Whenever I hear the name Robert Redford, I don't think of The Sting or Ordinary People. I think of his role as Roy Hobbs.
In the twenty-six years since its release, The Natural has become one of the most beloved sports movies of all time. However that was not the case when it first came out. Many were outraged at the drastic changes made to Bernard Malamud's classic novel. But while Malamud's novel focuses on the failure of American innocence, director Barry Levinson's film concentrates on the fable of success. Critics John Simon and Roger Ebert were particularly brutal, calling The Natural "the ultimate triumph of semi-doltish purity" and "idolatry on the part of Robert Redford."
I couldn't disagree more.
In fact I'm more in tune with sportswriter Bill Simmons who once said, "Any 'Best Sports Movie List' that doesn't feature either Hoosiers or The Natural as the number one pick doesn't count." Well said Bill.
However, in a sense Ebert is on to something when he talks about "idolatry." The Natural is the first baseball movie that really explores the idea of baseball player as myth. Hobbs in many ways is the archetype of the American baseball hero, someone whose accomplishments on the field are just awe inspiring. It is no wonder therefore that Redford copied his swing after the greatest hitter ever, Ted Williams. He even chose to wear Teddy Ballgame's number in the film as an homage to Red Sox left fielder.
Any successful sports movie (or any movie for that matter) needs to have four cohesive ingredients: story, acting, tone, and score. The Natural's story is the essence of America because it revolves around a comeback. Who doesn't love a story about a guy who has been through hard times but manages to find a way to turn it around? That is why we love comeback stories like Bo Jackson or Rick Ankiel. It is an essential part of the human condition.
The Natural also has the fantastic advantage of having an excellent ensemble cast. At the forefront of course is Redford, who at 48 years old was able to convince the audience early in the movie he was twenty, just by changing his hair and clothes. Not an easy thing to do. Hobb's quiet grace and passion to be the best player who ever played the game shines through just as clearly as the shame at his own past. Robert Duvall is excellent as Max Mercy, the smarmy sportswriter digging into Hobbs' past who, with the flick of his typewriter can make anyone into a goat or a hero. The Natural does an excellent job of exploring the constant give and take between sportswriter and athlete. Glenn Close, in an Academy Award nominated role, steals the show as Iris Gaines, Roy's former girlfriend. Her elegance and connection to Hobbs's past, serves as a reminder to Redford's character about how important it is to hold true to your roots.
Without question my favorite performance comes from Wilford Brimley. Many people today only know Brimley as the Liberty Mutual guy who has a unique pronunciation of the word diabetes. However, he'll always be manager Pop Fisher to me. Brimley delivers a gruff, funny, and endearing performance. His relationship with Hobbs is every bit as important as Iris's. I tell you I still get chills every time time I see the scene towards the end of the movie where Hobbs tell Fisher his Dad always wanted him to be a baseball player. Fisher responds, "Well you're better than any one I ever had. And you're the best goddamn hitter I ever saw. Suit up." Classic.
I mentioned earlier how The Natural focuses on the baseball player as mythology and the tone of the film reflects that idea. Director Barry Levinson does an excellent job of creating the sense of electricity and excitement that baseball gives little boys and grown men alike. It's even set in the 1930s which many consider to be the golden age of baseball. Everything seems larger than life, from the sweeping cornfields of Roy's hometown, to the majesty of Wrigley Field. Watching the final scenes of The Natural is in many ways like being at a baseball game. I still get wrapped up in the intensity of the crowd when Hobbs steps up for that final at bat. Randy Newman's score (also nominated for an Academy Award) is epic and sweeping which fits perfectly with the tone of The Natural.
The Natural uses baseball as a metaphor for the struggles all human beings go through. At the same time it also represents the pure beauty of the game, the passion of those who play it, and the fans who gather to cheer them on. Perhaps that is why so many years later it remains a classic. It's also why The Natural remains my all-time favorite sports movie to this day.
My rating: 10/10

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