Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Natural

The Natural
Director: Barry Levinson
Starring: Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Kim Basinger, Darren McGavin

I don’t entirely get baseball.  I should, I was raised on it (or at least in the household of some die-hard Red Sox fans).  I played my obligatory year or two of kiddie softball.  I’ve been to a handful of games live, I’ve seen a ton of games on TV.  But heck, I’m just not a sports person.  Really, really not.  In fact, the one sport (cycling) I love is one that I came to much later in life.  So movies about baseball… or really, any sport you want… aren’t really my thing.  And when you have a movie like The Natural that preaches that baseball is nothing less than God’s Word On Earth, I get a little… skeptical. 

Roy Hobbs (Redford) is a promising young player whose father instills in him a strong work ethic, so naturally, when dad snuffs it, Roy gets determined and makes a magic bat out of a magic tree.  (No, really.)  Roy gets called up for a tryout but tragedy strikes when an evil woman in black (Barbara Hershey) shoots him for no reason.  Years pass, and Roy takes a second stab at playing in the majors, but this time more cautiously.  His appearance as if from nowhere, as a long-in-the-tooth rookie, no less, causes a lot of questions, especially when he starts hitting homers like it’s nothing.  A love from his past seeks to reconnect with him (Close) just as the evil powers-that-be seek to destroy him.

If you love baseball, you’ll love this movie.  The Natural treats baseball with a reverence so complete, so pure, you’d think the stadium was a church.  The world begins and ends with baseball.  The world turns because of baseball.  There is nothing beyond baseball.  And The Natural is a decent film, so I can understand why people (like my parents) love it so much.  They love baseball, ergo they love The Natural.  It’s really a no-brainer, and I totally understand.

But if you haven’t yet bought into the mythos of baseball before the film, The Natural is nothing less than a ridiculously heavy-handed attempt to convert you.  It’s like attending an uncomfortable cult meeting.  “Join us… join us…!”  “Um, on second thought, I need a drink, where’s the door?”  “THERE IS NO DOOR!  JOIN US!” 

Levinson invokes the notion of mythology early on in the film with a David vs. Goliath showdown between young buck Roy and a Babe Ruth-esque star slugger (played amusingly by Joe Don Baker).  The match up goes in Roy’s favor, of course, but it significantly attracts the attention of Barbara Hershey, who speaks to Roy of Lancelot and Homer.  That is, in case you hadn’t figured it out by now, what with the magic bat and defeat of the giant Whammer, Levinson really, reeeeeeeeeeally wants you to know he’s channeling mythology here.  Nothing is intended to be too realistic in this film (or, at least, I hope it isn’t, because it sure doesn’t play that way).  Hobbs’ team is “The Knights.”  The evil boss lurks from an office on high, shrouded in darkness.  An evil minion with a magic eyeball sees all.  And you thought regular ballplayers were superstitious?  The notion of “luck,” both good and bad, is taken to somewhat comical heights with The Natural.

There is zero subtlety in this film.  Playing on the idea of mythology, everything is either right or wrong, black or white, good or evil.  And director Levinson doesn’t trust that you’re smart enough to figure it out for yourself, so he makes sure you’re beaten over the head with this.  Iris (Close), Hobbs’ childhood sweetheart, is good.  Therefore, she wears white.  All the time.  She even has a halo in a few scenes – no, seriously.  OK, Levinson, I get it, she’s good, she has some sort of angelic charm over Roy.  And then there’s Memo (Basinger), a seductress in the employ of the bad guys.  She wears black.  All the time.  She even lies to Roy over the phone, telling him she’s wearing white when she’s wearing black.  I get it.  She’s evil.  Furthermore, the baseball team itself is utterly absurd in its talent.  They are either firing on all cylinders and can do no wrong while Roy hits home runs at every SINGLE at bat, OR they look like a bunch of Little Leaguers, making baubles and errors so bad the producers at America’s Funniest Home Videos would think they were staged.  There is NO middle ground.  Either everyone’s good and perfect, or everyone’s evil and the team can’t play their way out of a paper bag.  

In case you couldn't tell she was angelic, the point WILL be slammed down your throat.

But Levinson doesn’t simply stop with mythologizing the game of baseball; he takes it a significant step forward, and outright deifies the character of Roy Hobbs.  Roy Hobbs is NOT merely some Greek hero returned to save the besieged city from the evil outsiders.  No, he is the second coming of Christ himself.  Think I’m kidding?  Examine the symbolism.  First there is the association with carpentry, as Roy shapes his own bat.  Next, and fairly significantly, Roy has a promising career when he is young, then he disappears for sixteen years.  No word of him.  He reappears, as if from nowhere, and starts performing miracles – like hitting the ball so hard the cover rips off.  Then there is his wound from Barbara Hershey’s lady in black, a gunshot wound in his abdomen.  During the climax of the film, when Roy must literally sacrifice his health in order to save the team, the old wound reopens and he is bleeding.  (I am now rolling my eyes at this blatant Christ symbolism.)  You want more?  OK, I’ll give you more.  The concept of temptation is an important one in the film, and Roy must constantly overcome temptation from the evil overlords in order to lead his disciples – I mean teammates – to salvation.  We even have a Judas moment, as Roy realizes that one of his disciples – I mean teammates – has succumbed to the temptation of the overlords.  No, this is not simply hero worship or mythology.  This is downright religion.  This is deification.  This is Christ in baseball.

Which, as I am neither a fan of baseball or organized religion, does not really appeal to me.  You have not sold me on “baseball as a house of worship,” and the heavy-handedness of the symbolism is a bit oppressive.

I have one more gripe with the film and then I’ll say some nice things.  This movie has the stupidest movie death I have EVER seen.  We have a problem character in the film in the form of one Bump Bailey.  Bump is a problem because he plays the same position as Roy Hobbs, and in order to give Roy playing time, Bump has to be “taken care of.”  So what does the script do?  Oh no biggie, it just has Bump run through the outfield fence.  And die.  By running through a board of wood.  A board.  Of wood.  Running through it.  Dead.

What.  The.  Fuck.

No “Oh no, Bump broke his leg, Hobbs you’re in!”  No “Oh no, Bump has a concussion, Hobbs you have to take over!” 

No.  He dies by running through a plank of wood.

I rarely yell at my television screen during a film, but I started shouting at it when I realized that I had just seen what I thought I saw.  This is so GODDAMN STUPID.  STUPID!!  WHAT THE HELL KIND OF MOVIE DEATH IS THAT?!?  I had to call my husband in to watch the scene, and his jaw dropped as well. 

“Wait, he died?”  YES.  “By running through the wall?”  YES.  “WHAT IS THAT?!?”  I DON’T KNOW.

I expect that kind of nonsense from, oh, Scary Movie, but The Natural is “serious.”  This kind of utter stupidity really, REALLY bothers me. 

In case you couldn’t tell.

Died by running through a wall… of all the idiotic… jesus christ, pun intended…

OK, having now railed against The Natural for several hundred words, believe it or not I have good things to say as well.  Shocking, I know.  For one, if I let go of my annoyance at the heavy-handed deification of a game of sticks and balls, the story is well told.  The baseball montages are fun and entertaining and the swing band score that accompanies these bits got my toes tapping.  Sure, you’ll be sick of slow-motion and golden back-lighting (again with the Jesus motif!) by the end of this movie – I was tempted to turn it into a drinking game – but Levinson has a flair for storytelling.  The sets and costumes are gorgeous and glitzy, befitting of the 1930s time period.  And the score, the main theme, and climax, of The Natural has been parodied hundreds of times, so it’s nice to see the original.  The score is certainly rousing, meant to convince you of the heroics of our main character.  

Additionally the performances are all sound.  Redford has little to do other than look and sound earnest, but considering that’s his major strength as an actor, he pulls it off.  Glenn Close is a little hard for me to believe as a beacon of angelic purity and goodness, but that’s because her career since this film has tended to typecast her as a villain, and that’s no fault of her own.  I kept on wanting to shout “DIABEETUS!” at Wilford Brimley, but hey, that made for entertaining watching.  Richard Farnsworth is an actor I utterly adore, so I was thrilled to see him play his typical aw-shucks persona here.  It’s nothing new, but with Farnsworth, I lap it up.  Darren McGavin, in an uncredited role, is a great deal of fun as well, but it is Robert Duvall who really stole the show.  Duvall is the one character with any hint of ambiguity in what is otherwise a painfully black and white film.  Who is he anyway?  Whose side is he on?  Duvall has more than enough charm to hint at one thing, swing in the other moral direction, but then come right back again.  He’s the only thing in this film to keep you guessing.  Everything else is rather painfully telegraphed.

Like I said earlier, if you love baseball, if you believe in baseball, I’d bet you’d love The Natural, because The Natural has a massive hard-on for baseball.  But I don’t love baseball.  So to me, it was over two hours of ham-fisted unnecessary religious idolatry.  I don’t think I shall be introducing this one into my regular line-up.

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10


  1. "Ham-fisted" is a great word for this one. The message in this one is applied with the deft subtlety of a sledgehammer.

    A lot of people love The Natural. It wouldn't make my top 5 baseball movies. It might make my top 10, but only because I don't know if I've seen 11 baseball movies.

    1. By the end of the movie, I was imagining Barry Levinson with a megaphone shouting into my ear.

      This is one of my father's favorite movies. As I say at the beginning, I'm not really a fan of baseball movies to begin with, but there are definitely several others I'd pick over this one.

      "I don't know if I've seen 11 baseball movies."


  2. "Like I said earlier, if you love baseball, if you believe in baseball, I’d bet you’d love The Natural."

    Actually, baseball is my favorite sport, but I feel this movie is just okay. In fact, had I reviewed it I would have written the exact opposite - that to like this movie you have to NOT be a fan of baseball. It is too unrealistic, and so eye-rolling in its portrayal of the sport, that those were the parts that made me laugh when they were not supposed to (like the guy running through the fence). I saw this way back in the 80s and I just shrugged and assumed that critics were going gaga over it because they knew nothing about baseball. I guess we're both wrong, but then I don't know what that leaves for the reason some people like this movie - maybe the religious motifs you pointed out.

    Now, a movie that I WOULD describe as "if you love baseball, you will love this movie" is Field of Dreams, which also spends considerable time waxing rhapsodic about the sport, but which does it in a way realistic to the sport in its presentation on screen.

    1. Interesting... you loving baseball but feeling pretty much the same way about this movie. Frankly, I was basing my reaction mostly on my dad who adores sports AND this movie. I really wanted to like this movie, too, because of him, but after Bump's death, I was done. Finished. Kaput.

      Yeah, I guess the only other option left for those who love this movie is that they love it not because of baseball (because clearly that ain't it) but because of the religious symbolism. Because seriously, I got nothing else.

      Field of Dreams wipes the floor with The Natural. I honestly thought it (Field of Dreams) was in 1001 Movies. I cannot BELIEVE that it isn't. What on EARTH is up with that. Heck, I don't really like baseball, but I like Field of Dreams and would gladly watch it anytime.