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THE NATURAL

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, July 5, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Robert Redford’s baseball favorite, in which he starred after a four-year layoff from acting, has earned a new 4K upgrade, so here’s a reminder of just how good it is. My review was published in the Deseret News on May 13, 1984.

Robert Redford is back on the screen, and his presence makes us realize how much he’s been missed. And “The Natural” is an old-fashioned, unabashedly corny, unashamedly sentimental piece of Americana. It’s the feel-good movie of the season — and it feels very good.

Based purely on the script, the from-the-hip impulse is to dismiss “The Natural” as “Rocky at the Bat” and to complain about its using every predictable bottom-of-the-ninth baseball cliché in the book (which it does), along with more than a few illogical turns (among other things, Redford is the most destructive hitter in baseball history, at various times smashing the stadium clock, the stadium lights, the press box window and a sports writer’s camera, not to mention tearing the cover off a ball and smashing a bat in two).

And yet “The Natural” gathers the audience so quickly in its story, and so completely in its characters, it is so supremely well-acted, beautifully photographed and hauntingly poetic in its atmospheric structure, that it is a delight to simply sit back and savor the experience. And you may want to go back and savor it again.

For those who missed, as I did, the Bernard Malamud novel on which this is based, the story has Redford as Roy Hobbs, a gifted athlete in the early 1920s who is headed for a tryout with the Chicago Cubs when he is waylaid by startling, tragic circumstances.

     

Robert Redford, left, Richard Farnsworth, Wilford Brimley, 'The Natural'

Hobbs drops out of sight for 16 years, then mysteriously reappears one day at the dugout of the fictional New York Knights, where “Pop” Fisher (Wilford Brimley), co-owner/manager of the basement team, steadfastly refuses to use the “middle-aged rookie,” despite the coach, Red Blow (Richard Farnsworth), feeling otherwise.

As the team sinks lower and lower in the leagues, however, Pop eventually changes his mind and puts Hobbs up to bat, where the overage hitter shows his stuff with a series of home rums that bolsters up the team and puts it into a winning streak.

Obviously Pop is overjoyed but his co-owner in the team, an evil, sinister fellow who likes to keep the lights off during conversation and is known only as “The Judge” (Robert Prosky), isn’t crazy about the winning streak, as it could cost him his majority stock. Together with his equally sinister business partner, the one-eyed gambler Gus Sands (an oddly unbilled Darren McGavin), along with nasty sports writer Max Mercy (Robert Duvall) and Pop’s niece, the deceitful Memo Paris (Kim Basinger), they plan Hobbs’ undoing.

What they don’t count on is true love, in the form of Hobbs’ girl back home, Iris Gaines (Glenn Close), who returns to his life.

Other characters who figure prominently are Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey), a femme fatale in Hobbs’ early life; the Whammer (Joe Don Baker), a Babe Ruth spitting image; and Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen), a fellow player whose untimely demise is, to say the least, unique.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away as the unexpected story twists are part of the fun of “The Natural,” but I will say that this is an obvious “falling from grace” parable with more than a few suggestions of the Arthurian quest for the Holy Grail, foreshadowed in some early dialogue. This is a movie about heroes and villains, a mystical fantasy in many ways, and if you go in recognizing that this is not supposed to be stark reality, you’ll have a lot of fun.

Yes, the cornball script and direction make this film seem out of tune with the times; yes, Randy Newman’s patriotic score and the slow-motion photography signal every one of Redford’s successful home runs; yes, the lightning that is prominent in major scenes and the “Damn Yankees”-“Angels in the Outfield” plot is occasionally predictable, and sometimes downright silly — but “The Natural” has a charm, a humor and a romantic nature all its own. And I found it thoroughly enchanting.

     

The cast is one of the best ever assembled, and each character has something important to do. And they all do it exquisitely.

Duvall sinks himself into his devilishly charming character, Basinger is well-shaded and sensuous, Close is utterly charming, Hershey is appropriately offbeat, Prosky and McGavin are grandly threatening — but among the supporting characters, Brimley once again steals every scene he’s in, as a wonderfully irascible curmudgeon, with some very funny moments.

It is Redford, however, who is in virtually every scene, and his introspective acting style is perfect for Roy Hobbs. Redford is older now, and though he is in reality about a decade past the oldest age he plays in the film, he allows the camera to linger over the lines and the weariness in his face, letting it work to the character’s advantage. That famous Redford smile is used sparingly and that makes it all the more effective when it is used. He’s quiet and pensive yet never really brooding. It is yet another marvelous performance from one of our most underrated actors.

One of the best things about the script is its liberal use of minor eccentricities for its characters — Mercy’s cartooning, Pop’s gruffness, Pop and Red quizzing each other on old songs, etc. Subplots and important supporting characters are often avoided in films these days but here they are well used.

Rated PG for a few profanities here and there, and some implied sex, “The Natural” is a delightful movie experience. The complaints seem like carping in the overall context. And the memory of the film lingers nicely in retrospect.