Sunday, May 08, 2011

The Natural (1984)

"People don't start playing ball at your age, they retire!"

Roy Hobbs loves baseball. He used to play catch with his father on the family farm until one day his father collapsed under a tree and died from a heart attack. This same tree is later split in half by lightning during a summer storm. Hobbs carves a bat from this wood and burns the word “Wonderboy” into it. He dreams of playing in the National League and bids goodbye to his childhood sweetheart Iris to try and make it as a baseball player. On his way to tryouts he encounters a shady woman who changes his life forever and puts his dreams of a baseball career on hold. 19 years later Hobbs is finally signed to the New York Knights who sit in last place in the league with the principal owner, “The Judge”, actively campaigning for the team to lose. This includes distracting Roy with a woman named Memo, bribing players, intimidation and threats. Through it all Roy must find a way because this is his last chance.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Bernard Malamud, this film has a powerhouse cast with Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger and Robert Duvall with music by Randy Newman. This winning combo coupled with great cinematography makes for an amazing movie. The movie is essentially a retelling of the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King with a sports twist. It gives the story some mythological weight and also provides a jumping off point for the story. This is coupled with a morality tale as Hobbes’ hubris gets the best of him when boasting to the woman in black about how he’ll be the “best there ever was”. She almost seems to stand in as an agent of fate that puts mortals in their place when they dare to strive for immortality.

Watch for the amazing cinematography in this film. It lends itself to the mythology inherent in the story. There’s a scene where Glenn Close comes watch Roy play. She’s dressed in white, wearing a very special hat. Roy’s already struck out once and when he walks up to the plate again he turns back to look at the crowd, as if he senses something. He can’t seem to get his game together and with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning this could be the end of the game. Glenn stands up, the sun shining through her hat. She appears as this towering woman in white with a halo, willing him to win the game. The film is lousy with symbols like this and elevates the movie so that it’s about more than just sports.

What’s really great about the "The Natural" is it was the kick-start for modern baseball movies. "Bull Durham", "Field of Dreams" and "Major League" would follow. And while I’ve never really been one for sports movies I really enjoyed this one. I don’t follow a lot of sports so when it comes to the mechanics of the games, the film usually loses me. But this movie struck a chord and it may just be my favourite sports movie. It also doesn't hurt that Robert Redford is a stone cold fox in this movie.

It's heavy with sentimentality and the movie is different from the book. But I think the strength of adaptations rests on the idea that those that haven't read the book can still understand and get the general message of the movie.

Rating: 4.5/5

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